Wordshore

Writing in the long form
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

August 24th, 2013 by John

The Long Autumn

The summer fruits, the Victoria plums and Cambridge strawberries, are the sweetest and juiciest, filled with the rains of spring. But it’s the autumn fruits, those slow-growing crops such as Marjorie’s Seedling, Russet and Cox’s Orange Pippin, where the flavors are strongest and the colors deepest.

It’s strange. There’s a party going on downstairs, but I feel flat today, unsociable. Not grumpy, just tired, withdrawn, wanting to move on in several ways. So while the party goes on, and I hear the distant shrieking of people (nice people at that) who, for the most part I won’t see again, I’m blogging.

Summer feels nearly over, the last week here. The actual season of summer, and a more metaphorical one. The literal one, with long days and warm nights; cricket and hopes of winning trophies, contesting the Ashes; sitting in a garden and being thankful that winter is still some way in the distance.

Sunset

And it’s been, unexpectedly, my best summer in England. I’ve enjoyed culture; albums from Amiina, Boards of Canada. Various books, finally read. Classic and favorite films, rewatched. The rediscovery of radio. Parental ashes finally being scattered. The satisfaction of playing the first really good, worthwhile, fulfilling digital game in years, in Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Getting gradually, annoyingly slowly but still gradually, ‘better’. Figuring out unfigurable things. Finding an online clip of an overhead museum-based movie I watched in April 2007. Resolving, one by one, bad issues from years past. The rediscovery of the positive attributes of living somewhere quiet (even though oddly less than two miles from the centre of a major city), with clouds and sky and rain oddly reminding of a previous ‘life’ in the Outer Hebrides. My favourite cat recognising me after several months of non-contact. Seeing the new Library of Birmingham being completed and turning out to be pretty damned good. The delight of a Brummie turning out to be a brilliant Daily Show host, and the riposte to Daft Punk by Stephen Colbert (arguably the satirist of our generation).

And (finally) figuring out what I want to do and can do in the long term, though with the significant caveat of being less sure of who I want to work for and with. My growing disillusionment with academia – the mechanics of contemporary universities in particular – and seeing it, with experience and good reason, as an increasingly insecure, uncertain and unethical source of income. As do the many colleagues who lost their jobs, in organisations such as UKOLN and CETIS, this summer. Shifting focus and taking the silver coin of the commercial sector, while still adding to the sum of human knowledge, is increasingly the long-term sustainable way, probably the only way, a fact confirmed for me today. The bitter and unsatisfied lives of most academics, either as employed or self-employed by universities which increasingly resemble dysfunctional fly-by-night traders, is not for me. It probably never was.

Contrail

But the nights are drawing in rapidly. I couldn’t light miniature candles in the hidden oasis because of the weather this evening, for the first time in weeks, if not months; the late evenings of sitting outside are, like the late evenings of natural light, drawing to an end. The (cricket) Ashes have been retained, and the Pears have beaten the Bears. Still-unresolved situations need fixing before they become more toxic. Cooler weather and cooler heads abound as the summer turns. What feels like a long autumn, that favorite season of brilliant colors, harvesting the fruits of seeds long planted, working against the clock to bring in what one can, and delivering on the potential and hopes of seasons previous, is almost here.

It’s time.

April 21st, 2013 by John

The Boston Red Sox

The first time in Boston was December 1995, for the fourth World Wide Web conference. The last time was two years ago almost to the day, on a night stop-over on the way to (finally) meet – in ‘real life’ – the person who would be my fiancee.

The events of the last week – not just in Boston, but elsewhere in America, and much more personally closer – have been strange, turbulent, upsetting, downright scary, annoying as hell, thought-provoking and personally defining. Sometimes, in life, you never know your exact feelings about something until a situation or crisis occurs. That’s happened a few times this week.

Fenway Park, Boston, Massachusetts - HDR

One of the (by far) lesser things, personally, was finally deciding which baseball team to support. I know a lot about cricket but, despite going to several matches over the years, hardly anything about baseball. Apart from the basics (e.g. loading the bases, top and bottom of the innings, of which there are nine). The statistics aspects, the tactics, the culture surrounding it look enjoyable and reminiscent in some ways of cricket, and no other sport. And above all, it’s fun to go and watch; a truly social spectator sport that fits the “pursuit of happiness” ethos of America well.

But, which team to support. It was easy with cricket; Worcestershire County Cricket Club, my home county side, based at one of the most scenic sports grounds around, a few miles from where I went to school.

Not so easy with baseball. I’ve been to many matches now, in cities including Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit and Seattle, and seen teams play in major and minor league baseball. I have no geographical affinity to any side – there is no major baseball team within a good 6 hour drive of the place I consider ‘home’ in the USA. I have no baseball heros or players I follow closely, past or present. And people advise me to pick a major league side, and a minor league one close by so I’d not have to take a plane to always support my side.

Who to pick? Not an urgent question, but one dithered with for several years. A team is for life, not just for a season. Choose wisely, young padawan. You may be explaining this choice for several decades yet.

Fenway Park

But this week it clicked. Boston. The Red Sox. Of course. The first baseball match I went to in America (or anywhere), over fifteen years ago. The events of this week, with a city (and a country, and a people) I recognise, and like, and like a lot, in the news, across all news and disposable social media. The city where I got my online web work mojo together. The home city (near enough) of JFK, after whom I was named, and various presidents, patriots, and signers of the Declaration of Independence.

And the city where I first thought “Hey, maybe I’ll move to this country one day”.

Those reasons are more than good enough for me. So the Boston Red Sox it is. Here’s a video taken by someone three years ago during a Patriots Day match between the Red Sox and the Yankees at Fenway Park in Boston:

November 9th, 2012 by John

The fifteen hundred

There was an era in U.S. political life “that began with Ronald Reagan, where there was a conservative dominance powered by conservative voters and Southern whites,” said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “That era is over.


You know those news stories of religious cults, approaching a day of judgement where they are convinced that they will ascend to some form of heaven, leaving all the unbelievers behind? And they gather on the anointed day, often in some place in an American desert (Utah seems particularly appropriate). And right to the end, they believe that they are correct and everyone else is wrong.

And the time passes. And they don’t go to heaven, but just stand there, all upset, some in denial, many angry, some forever angry, some crying ‘lies’, some broken, some think they have been cheated, some blaming it on a lack of faith and action, some rearranging the date according to a hastily-justified reason, and some bewildered why the non-believers “just don’t get it”.

That was the core of the Republican party on election night. Cue Karl Rove in disbelieving mood. Cue the disbelieving party workers and Romney faithful in Boston. Cue the many viewers of Fox News, now spewing out angry disbelief on the comments sections of a thousand online news reports, and warning that the apocalypse is now upon us and the country is doomed and it’s all the fault of the non-believers, those strange unbelieving liberals who seem inexplicably angry with the prophecy of an imminent Conservative heaven.

Flag-waving "Patriots"

Their day, their moment, of judgement did not come. They weren’t transported to a land of low taxes, no medical cover, abortion or gay rights, ruled by a mean-sounding and uncomfortably white God. They’re still in the USA, a country still beset by significant problems – many of its own making – but one that is slowly, gradually becoming more racially and sexually accepting and socially liberal. More fair.

For them, the cult members, this is not pretty. And on the other, European side of the Atlantic, some rejoice and many are relieved while others, often intolerant extremists from the left who are boringly determined to be miserable about anything and everything Americana, whine about the result to the annoyance of more rational Americans. Maybe there is something in the horseshoe theory after all.

And for some of these more rational people watching from near or far away, it’s weird, this post-election feeling. A mixture of relief, fear, trepidation and exhaustion. The analysis of how Obama won – and why Romney lost, and lost an election many thought they could and should have won – is underway in a myriad of media, political centers, and television studios and smoke-filled back offices across America. The excuses from the losers – careful to point the blame at everyone except themselves – have begun. And so this experiment to change the Presidency by subtly and not-so-subtly brainwashing a significant proportion of the richest country in the history of mankind and throwing a billion dollars at an election, is over. As is a multi-level campaign featuring some of the most hateful and negative electioneering for a while, both widely known and not so widely known.

And, for a complex set of inter-related reasons that people are figuring out, it failed.

US Constitution

Good. And many good moments came out of the election. Possibly one of the most satisfying was the story of the damaging 47% video, shot at a private Romney event ($50,000 a pop to attend) where he dismissed that proportion of the population for allegedly never paying tax, living off handouts and always voting for Obama. And why was this video reveal particularly satisfying? Because the Republican Party, and Romney in particular, had spent many years castigating Jimmy Carter, the 1976 to 1980 US President. And the person who brought the video to the attention of the mass media and voters … was his grandson. A typically American twist of justice.

But the enduring struggle which maybe defines America, and what it means to be an American, goes on.

This ridiculously newly reborn country, where people alive today have watched a witness to Lincoln’s assassination describing it on TV. Where the last verified widow of a civil war veteran died just four years ago. And where the grandchildren of the tenth president, who took office in 1841, are still alive and farm. Heck, it’s less than four hundred years – which is nothing in European or Chinese historical terms – since the Mayflower arrived, had to winter out at sea and half the passengers died.

From here in the “old world”, post-colonial America sometimes seems almost too comically young, like a third grade schoolboy trying to buy beer, to call itself a country.

But it’s managed to pack a lot of turbulence, expansion, internal and external conflict, into those few hundred years. As well as, or possibly resulting in, staggering progress, the only country in history to go from the basic survival of newly arrived immigrants to safely putting its own citizens on the surface of another world within three and a half centuries. That’s pretty damned impressive. But is it the perpetual struggle between the religious and the humanist, the republican and the democrat, the farmer and the land, the homeowner and the tornado, the north and the south, the native and the settler, the free and the enslaved, the President and Congress, which defines America? If these struggles, endless and enduring, somehow ended, would this remove the character, identity which is America? I’m not sure.

But there’s one definite thing about America. It can be, often is, a peaceful and relaxed and above all a friendly place, even though it is always at conflict within itself. This perpetual conflict; maybe it’s the lack of post-colonial history, with only fifteen or so generations since the first Europeans walked off the boat into an already populated land, and stayed there. Maybe it’s because the underlying issues, feelings and prejudices which culminated in the civil war are not wholly resolved.

Or maybe it’s because the Declaration of Independence explicitly, optimistically and positively, tells the citizens of the country to go in the pursuit of happiness. Or maybe it’s because much of the Constitution, although written a mere ten generations ago, is open to interpretation, misinterpretation and re-interpretation. Or maybe it’s because within a single digit number of generations of that document, a period of almost impossible growth and advance, the country somehow managed to become the most powerful (in good and not so good ways) in history.

Even now, like unexpected volcanic eruptions off the coast of Iceland spewing out new lands, the United States of America is rapidly changing in terms of population, land mass, size. The lower 48 only became as such a century ago, with the 1912 additions of Arizona and New Mexico. In 1968, when I was born, the population was 200 million. In the 44 years since then, just a couple of generations and 11 presidential elections later, it’s increased to 315 million. Soon, another star may be added to the flag as Puerto Rico moves towards joining the union. (How cool is that? One nation, stretching from the eastern Caribbean to Alaska) Understanding America is difficult because of this constant, rapid, change. Even some of those born and living there, such as many of those Republicans from earlier in the week convinced to the end that America would vote “their man” in on a landslide, miss or don’t understand the rapid changes.

old glory. venice beach, ca. 2012.

And a lot can, and does, change in America during a lifetime. Even in just a few years. In 1,500 days, the country will have dealt (or not dealt) with the fiscal cliff, more hurricanes, economic turbulence, incidents, tragedies and triumphs of almost Shakespearian drama. And it will have voted and decided on (so long as Florida gets its act together) a new president-elect, waiting for inauguration while President Obama sees out the last few weeks of his two terms. Who that president-elect will be no-one knows, but the speculation across the media and the campaigning seems to be well underway.

And beyond 2016, who knows? Perhaps the American political dynasties of the last century will re-emerge; more likely than you may think. Hillary (Clinton) may run in 2016, win, and be re-elected in 2020. Though not yet a politician, her (and Bill’s) daughter, Chelsea Clinton, is racking up media and political experience. Don’t rule out another of Jimmy Carter’s grandchildren, Jason Carter, recently re-elected to the Georgia State Senate. There’s also plenty of Roosevelt’s around, a few of whom are active in politics. Then there’s George Bush. Yes, another one, except this one is the son of Jed, nephew of George Dubya, is half-Latino, speaks fluent Spanish, and is already nicknamed ’47 in relation to which US President he may become.

And finally, this election has also brought a new Kennedy into the House, Joseph Patrick Kennedy III, the grandson of Bobby. He looks like a Kennedy, really like his Grandfather, and talks like one, and is starting to campaign like one. Unlike his Grandfather, he can use social media to promote, and has a twitter account with (at the moment) a mere seven thousand followers. I have a good, hopeful, feeling that, as the next few presidential cycles roll by, we may start to hear a lot more about Joe at the level of US presidential candidate…

The drama and the change and the struggle that is America, continues.

I love the place, and its people, dearly. One day, I’ll be one.

June 27th, 2012 by John

Don’t shush me, I’m tweeting the speaker

(The title is a play on librarian cliches and stereotypes, and on the worst book title in the field of games in education)

A better title is Dealing with Bunheads.

Twitter has been around for over six years. Other forms of social media have been around longer. Phones, tablets, laptops, and other devices where you can type while sitting at a presentation, seminar, workshop, conference or other event, have been around for many years, decades. And emails, mailing lists, usenet news groups, and other digital textual forms of presentation have been around for longer than quite a lot of the population, possibly some of the readers of this post.

And yet, at library and librarian conferences, there’s still reports of people in the audience asking, or telling, other people not to tweet. Seriously. I can’t believe I’m typing this in mid-2012.

It seems to happen on a regular basis at UK library events, less so – but not unknown – at US ones. Here’s a tweet from a conference earlier this week:

Tweeting problem

Here’s a comment by Jo the librarian on a post by Phil Bradley, from 2010 about a regional library organisation AGM from earlier that year. The whole comment included to give some context:

Ciliplondon

At the same event, another tweeter was also intercepted by a dinosaur who had some kind of objection to her ‘blackberry’. Lots of comments on this one. And lo, another post by someone else at the same event.

This hasn’t just happened, in the UK, at CILIP events:

biall

This has also happened in the USA, at the American Library Association annual conference this week past, where it happened to Kate and she posted about it on the ALA Think Tank Facebook group (a recommended thing to join):

ala

Kate adds some info on who and why the tweetophobe said what they did:

kate2

There are variations on this type of objection. For example, Sophie writes:

sophie1

There are far worse things than someone next to me using a smartphone, laptop or other device, at a library conference. These, ALL of which I’ve experienced at library conferences in the UK, include:

  1. The agent orange. Ridiculous amounts of aftershave or perfume, creating a natural ‘killzone’ around the wearer. Perhaps they are on ‘the pull’. Or perhaps they are too lazy to shower, and it’s to mask…
  2. The hobo. Bad body odor. Not the kind you get for running for the train that morning, but from seriously deficient personal habits.
  3. The muncher. Crunching their way through tube after tube of polo mints. Or some other bag or container of rustling sweets, due to an inability to wait until the break for refreshment.
  4. The slurper. People who have a cup or mug of coffee or tea, and loudly slurp. Every. Single. Damned. Mouthful.
  5. The stirrer. Usually the same person as the last one; people who stir their tea or coffee, in a mug, noisily using a metal spoon for several minutes. This is the only time (I think?) I have physically threatened someone with actual violence at a library conference. He left, suddenly, probably as a better option than having the metal spoon surgically removed later in the day. I’m a little unnerved by how close this came to violence, and I retrospectively apologise to everyone who overheard. Even if I was provoked.
  6. The yakker. People who talk through the whole session with the person next to them, on stuff that has nothing to do with the presentation. I mean, why the hell did you bother to turn up?
  7. The sniffer, who sniffs every five seconds, as regular as clockwork. Closely related to the throat-clearer.
  8. The crotch fiddler, as you’re aware of it, and as it is repeated, you’re not sure how innocent it is and whether you should move far away.
  9. The frakker. So called because they are their own personal gas drill well, emitting – sometimes loudly – gaseous material into the near locality. This seems to be prevalent amongst men of a certain age at UK library events. Or maybe I get repeatedly unlucky about who I sit next to.
  10. The tutter. He or she tuts at nearly every comment the speaker makes.

Suggestion to ‘The tutter’. If you want a wider audience, join twitter and tweet about what’s wrong with everything the speaker is saying.

If you can articulate your displeasure.

If.

Okay, I’m turning into Jerry Seinfeld. But, whatever. All of those are far worse than someone silently, without offensive odor, typing away on a device. People don’t publicly object to any of those ten, saying “Sir, you smell worse than the rear end of a dead horse!” or “Madam, if you suck those boiled sweets any louder, windows will shatter and dogs scatter!” Perhaps they should? But some people will complain about tweeting, despite tweeting being a positive and useful thing:

  • More people – many, many more – get to hear what the speaker is on about. That’s not disrespect; that’s amplifying. Tweeters are doing the speaker, and the event organisers, a huge favor.
  • The event itself is promoted more.
  • The speaker is critiqued. This is good. And from the many, many events I’ve followed on twitter, it doesn’t turn into an anti-speaker mob; at worse, there’s snark instead of vitriol. At best, there’s praise.
  • Extra information; links, context, additions, corrections, are added by the event twitterati to the speakers presentation. Good for him or her to review afterwards.
  • People tweeting, like note takers, will retain, remember, more information about the speaker.
  • Tweeting is good. It shows that at least some in the profession are comfortable with information flows through all media. Or, to put it more shortly, that they are information professionals.
  • Actively blocking tweeting is bad; contributing to the death knell of the profession. It’s off-putting to many people to join and gives ammunition to anti-library organisations that librarians are stuck in the past and irrelevant.

The objections to tweeting appear to fall into three categories:

  1. “You may be showing disrespect to the speaker.” I have a tiny bit of sympathy here, as the twitterophobe possibly has good intentions, but is just utterly in a different – previous – world as to how things work at events. Some education is required.
  2. “I don’t like technology, and therefore I’m going to make up ridiculous reasons why you shouldn’t tweet.” No sympathy here, and the twitterophobe shouldn’t be at Information Professional events. Or, arguably, in the profession.
  3. “I hate change. And I hate you, because I’m not young any more, and you are, with your virility and technology. This is my organisation, because I’ve been in it for decades and you haven’t. And there’s nothing you can do about it, because myself and like-minded people run it, and others in the organisation are too frightened to say anything in case we leave and stop paying our fees.” Again, no sympathy. Every elephant his graveyard, every dinosaur his tar pit.

What to do if someone tells to you stop tweeting, or typing, or messaging. There’s a few approaches that don’t involve violence or the threat of same:

michael

Or tell them you aren’t stopping and they are in the wrong. It’s important that you stand your ground as you are not in the wrong. Or, stay sitting on your slightly wobbly conference seat. Inform them that they can move to somewhere where they won’t encounter people tweeting, if it upsets them so much. Perhaps suggest North Korea, if you want to get flippant.

And then ignore them and tweet about them (which is even funnier if they are looking at your screen). Any decent conference or session organiser will pick up on this, and possibly intervene with dealing with the tweetophobe.

Alternately, if it is someone on a power-trip or being passive aggressive, take a picture of them and twitpic it. Let’s see the bunhead.

Concluding how this started; I’m still finding it hard to believe that this goes on in mid-2012. Not in huge amounts. But it does.

June 20th, 2012 by John

The solstice walk

The summer solstice is but a few hours away. To be precise, it happens at 00:09 BST, on Thursday June 21st, 2012.

Five years ago, I was living on a small island, some three miles by two, in the Outer Hebrides. With a population that hovered around 130 residents, it was a relaxed place. And also very pretty, with one of the best beaches you’ll find in Britain.

On the summer solstice, and around that time of the year, it remains surprisingly bright at night. The first year there, we discovered it was possible to read a newspaper or a book in the garden. At midnight. Without a torch.

We also discovered that it was a really good idea to invest in some serious wartime blackout curtains, as opposed to the translucent thin stuff that’s prevalent nowadays. When it’s bright, it’s seriously bright. And at 4am, that’s a bit strange. And annoying when you need to sleep.

Back in 2007, it had been a hot and sunny June. Rainfall had been minimal, and the ground was drying and cracking. The island had been, even at the height of this good weather summer, quiet, with the occasional tourist, celebrity and broadsheet newspaper journalist popping up and hanging around for a while. The rumour that Prince Charles was returning for another summers retreat on Berneray proved unfounded.

The good weather also invited long walks on the west and east beaches, and the occasional dip in the sea. Though, even after several weeks of sunshine, the water was still damned cold. (Also, the sphere in this next picture was solid and hurt when you kicked it)

Ball

I spent that summer taking every opportunity to do beach walks, when I wasn’t fiddling around with doing virtual world work for Andy Powell et al in Eduserv, finding and cooking mussels, and sailing on the open sea in a serious boat.

As the summer edged towards the solstice, the idea of a little walk between sunset and sunrise during the shortest night came about. With this time being only a few hours, it wouldn’t make for a long walk. But, the perimeter of Berneray, taking in several beaches, the slopes of various hills, and the single track road for the last part, would do just fine at the right pace.

I mentioned it to Ruth, who was up for it. We mentioned it to a few other people who we thought would be into it and good to come along. Unfortunately, they mentioned it to others, and within a few days, half the island wanted to do it. Doubly unfortunately – this involved the most talkative people; every community seems to have a few people who try and fill every quiet second with their own voices, and the appeal of a walk round the island faded. And people started talking, and phoning me up, about schedules, and supplies, and driving bits of it, and perhaps bringing a radio along(!), and whether it was right to bring alcohol or not, and all manner of other pointless complications.

Rather than having just a quiet walk. Looking at things. Listening to other things. Having the occasional word, and sharing the occasional drink.

I lost interest. Word got around that the walk had been postponed. No bad thing. It was tempting go out in the boat again instead, as we’d been doing that month.

Youth hostel and the north end of Berneray

Then come the day before the solstice, the weather forecast looked good and we thought “Heck, why not.” Leaving it as close to the time as possible, we roped back in a few of the quieter people, and the five of us were set.Ruth, Andrew, Chris, Shonnie and myself.

Chris came to the gate of our house for sunset and we set off, picking up Andrew at his house, and Shonnie at the bottom of the road to his house. Mary, his kind wife, had loaded his pockets with sweets and a flask of something illicit smelling, and gave us a friendly but firm “make sure he comes back” parting.

Up to full strength, we walked past various ruins, up the east beach, and round the north headland.

The magnificent five

As you can see from that, and the next picture, it’s not easy to photograph at night on a cheap camera. The light is strange, and you can watch the bright area western sky slowly move clockwise, north then east, as dawn approaches.

Like hobbits, we stopped (increasingly) for meal breaks. It was a nice group to be in. Small. No-one spoke much, and no-one spoke loudly. All of us had some local and natural knowledge, so between us birds and animal sounds were identified through the night.

We carried on, anti-clockwise, and hit the west beach; three miles of unbroken white sand. Never monotonous, and never crowded; the most people I ever counted on it at the same time was eleven, a day that was acknowledged to be “freakishly crowded” and people talked of moving on as the “place is being over-run”.

The beach offers an uninterrupted view of the island of Pabbay, which I spent a heck of a lot of time over half a decade looking at, with its volcanic-like shape, green slope and beaches. We went there by fishing boat on my birthday two years before, wandering over the now-deserted island, posing for photos and watching herds of tame deer run uncomfortably close to us.

But tonight, on the summer solstice, Pabby brooded, darkly, watchfully, sentient, over us from across the few miles of placid north Atlantic.

Pabbay from the west beach

Despite being three miles of sand, we spent two hours on the beach. The sounds of the waves, bird noises, some kind of distant, deep, thudding far out to see, and the occasional startled otter, were pretty much it during that stretch of the walk. I’d gone ahead of the others who’d stopped to look at some unidentifiable dead … thing … washed up on the beach, and had an hour to myself. Recent adventures exploring Finland had given me a lot to think about and a deeper itch, troubling thoughts, to figure out various things (though at the time I wasn’t sure what) were pressing heavily in conscious and unconscious thoughts. That hour of solitude, 2 till 3 in the morning, on the west beach of Berneray, is still really vivid in the mind, staring at the unmovable, silent Pabbay.

The group reassembled and carried on. Rounding the south west corner of Berneray, we were starting to head for home. Or my home where I’d promised breakfast for any of us who completed the circuit. Crossing the cockle bay, at low tide, revealed many otter prints as they slept, hung out and ate their catch here in significant numbers at the time.

Despite some fatigue, the pace picked up. Mary would be waiting for Shonnie (he wasn’t allowed to linger for breakfast). We got back to the house before dawn, realising that we hadn’t passed or seen a single vehicle for the whole walk. I walked Shonnie back to his place, then doubled back to mine. Before tucking into what was left of breakfast (Chris having eaten most of the contents of our fridge), I took a pre-dawn snap of the view from my office:

Dawn

Deeply satisfying, the whole walk, the whole night, every part of it. And possibly the best thing I’ve organised, specifically because it was kept simple in the end. Let’s go for a walk; start after sunset, breakfast before sunrise. And that’s it.

People regularly ask me if I miss the place. Or how could I possibly move away from such a beautiful place to live in. And they’re right about how it looks; there are few places (and I’ve travelled a lot) that compare to the scenery of the Outer Hebrides, all the year round.

But there’s more – a heck of a lot more – to living in a place than just the scenery. And there’s more than a few grains of truth in Local Hero on this, and if you watch the whole film, on living in a rural place on the periphery of northern Europe (not just Scotland). Things to write and publish about, in much greater detail, another day.

Despite having “broadband” there that is unbelievably bad to sign up to, and unbelievably bad to actually try and use, I’m still in touch over the Interwebz with a fair few people on Berneray and the other islands that make up the Outer Hebrides. It’s interesting, the conflict some of them have, the yearn to get away for many and varied reasons, but the pull of the place they feel is home. Some stay. Some leave and eventually come back, need to come back to feel content again. Some leave and never come back. The way it’s always been on the periphery of Europe; the way it’ll probably always be.

But no, I don’t miss living on Berneray; there have been many adventures since (not all of them good, or desired), and I’ve a much better, possibly brutally simple and personal, concept of what ‘home’ is now than five very long years ago. Though, there is one thing I really do miss from those years; being on a boat with a sail in the open sea.

Shooting along

Yeah; my own boat (think I’d name her the Liberty Rose) on the open sea. Something to dream about, and sail, in future years.

Oh, and the solstice walk. It never got repeated. Well, that’s not strictly true. It was never publicly repeated, though I gather some Berneray residents have quietly, with few words and no announcements, done it on their own since {smiles}. Hoping more do it tonight, and in future years.

May 28th, 2012 by John

Storms over Lake Michigan

It was a few years ago, now. More recent than many of the other adventures I’d had in America, but still disappearing into the cognitively dusty corner of things done in the past. Some memories, most memories, fade, but some memories are sharp enough to endure.

I’d been dating H. It wasn’t good. The hot summer in the rust belt, and the previous baggage we’d both brought to the relationship, had stifled it pretty quickly. She was coming back to England with me. We both knew this was a mistake, but neither of us wanted to say. Eventually, we were both proved right.*

Her mom and her partner had a trailer. No, they weren’t the stereotypical rednecks – they also had a house – but this was a trailer in some kind of middle class holiday park, in northern Indiana. It was ridiculously big; and comfortable, with “all mod cons” and places to sleep, and a large TV on which reruns of Top Gear could be watched by Americans easily amused at the comedic value of British men. Back in my own country, I’ve lived in smaller apartments.

As I said, it wasn’t good between me and H. That’s in the past – the receeding past, thankfully – and it’s unlikely we’ll ever speak again, especially when I’ve published all of the memories that are emerging, some years in the future when it’s more appropriate. And speaking was something we weren’t good at doing anyway, even when we were together.

Aurora Over Lake Michigan

In the trailer park, I’d increasingly go off on my own to avoid talking. One evening I took the golf cart out, something I enjoyed doing on my own, less so with other people. It had cup holders, meant I didn’t have to exercise in any way, and therefore made me feel a little bit American.

The air was oppressive; hot and still that evening. The heat had been nudging 100 in the daytime, and the insects were feasting on my slowly cooking skin that week. Driving the golf cart gave a little relief; a slight and silent breeze.

I drove it to the entrance to the trailer park, on a few yards more, to the top of a rise. Not a big rise, but in Indiana, a rise is a rise. Feeling … something … I turned around.

To the northwest, the view swept over the border into Michigan. In the distance, far far into the distance, huge storm clouds, impossibly large thunder clouds, moved imperceptibly across the sky, like silent buffalo in great numbers, on the move. Lighting lit up random clouds, but no thunder rolled across Michigan and Indiana to where I sat in the golf cart, the storm was so distant.

I tried to work out where the clouds were, and realised that, with the distance, the storms were likely to be over Lake Michigan, moving out of Chicago, trundling towards Canada. But here I was, in Indiana, close to the border with Ohio, watching storms sweep across a lake so vast that you sail on it and soon lose sight of the shore from where you came. A lake larger than countries such as Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium or the Netherlands. A lake which I’d swam in several times, watched fireworks fall into, and pottered around on, in boats. To an Englishman, used to tiny lakes not much bigger than ponds, and a gap from his birth country to continental Europe much narrower than Lake Michigan, the scale of this unobstructed panorama woke me from my evening heat slumber. And woke me from the place I’d retreated to, inside myself, that summer.

Solitude

I watched the silent lightning and wondered; were there boats on the lake? Under the storm? Being battered by large waves, and worked desperately like Truman Burbank trying to keep the Santa Maria afloat? Ships heading for safe harbour, in Grand Haven, Muskegon, Benton or Evanston?

That was the America I was looking for. The big sky; the big country; liberty defined in a thousand ways, but an important one being that with wheels and cheap gasoline, you can drive in the same direction for hours, days, and still be in the same country. Where a quick trip to your favorite restaurant for dinner can be a hundred miles or more. And train journeys between major cities are sometimes measured, not in minutes or hours, but in days and nights. A landmass so big, many people go a lifetime and never see the edges.

Only a third of Americans have passports, I’d read in the paper. True or not, it suddenly seemed plausible; the place was so big, endless, rolling, why go elsewhere when there’s much still to see here? I’d only experienced this feeling of scale before in Scandinavia, the overwhelming size of the fjords of Norway, the coastline that seems unimaginably long, the hundreds of thousands of islands, and the endless roads through the snowy northern European landscape. Nowhere else, apart from here in America, had a landscape this epic.

I drove back to the trailer before the golf cart battery drained completely. No-one had noticed that I’d gone; symbolic, obviously, of the dying relationship that would unfortunately stagger on for another half year.

And that is my most vivid, persistent and positive memory of that relationship (for even out of the worst ones, some good things usually come). Ironically, an event in which I’d found a near-perfect moment, but in solitude. Watching lightning and storms, from an American state away, move slowly across an inland sea. And understanding a mixture of emotions of calmness, liberty and freedom that come with watching a natural display of this scale, this distance and this grandeur.

* Update: August 28th 2012

Having said that, things did work out well – eventually – several years down the line, though in odd ways involving social media, patience, mistakes and regret, cheese and other things. If I hadn’t been tweeting, blogging and whatever else that summer from Ohio and Indiana, they may not have. Guess social media has its upsides, after all.