Saturday, December 30, 2006

Post Christmas blues

I hate this time of year with an unquenchable vehemence. I always have. Its a strange limbo between Christmas and New Year, the old year lingers for too long and the New Year sounds so exciting until it arrives. Ultimately it disappoints. This is a nothing time. Although I am back at work, it doesn't feel like work. There is only a few people in, there is just a feeling of working for the sake of doing so, going through the motions to tidy the last few things up before year's end. Outside it will be busy. I've avoided the shops not wanting to venture into the maelstrom of the sales. I don't understand the frenzy that seems to enter people at this time of year. I really hate the crowds, I despair of the fact that the shops always seem so hot and claustrophobic and I refuse to be drawn into this idea that doing the sales is a must.

New Year always seems to be over-hyped, just another meaningless excuse for people to get drunk, be stupid, to bring out all the worst in their character. Only yesterday on the bus home I listened to a young girl talking loudly to her friend about how she was looking forward to New Year because she could get drunk. What kind of ambition or desire is that? How hollow and empty have we become that drink and the thought of losing all sense and control of ourselves is the only way we can really feel anymore? Is that what it takes to feel anything these days? What self-loathing must embrace the young these days? I've never wanted to be drunk; I've never liked drinking to excess. I don't enjoy losing control.

I am going to friends in Southend this weekend for New Year, which I am sure will lift my spirits. There have been New Years I have spent on my own, when I haven't even bothered to stay up to welcome in the new year. They've been miserable times because the expectation is that we must be happy at this time of year but I don't. I never do. I don't get excited about a change in the date on the calendar. One year is pretty much like the last or the next. Sometimes, I have good years other times, I have bad years. There are ups and downs, occasionally it feels like there is no end to the rain, other times it is happy and joyful. Whatever, it really doesn't matter in the context of whether that happened in 1996 or 2003. What is more important is what I will do tomorrow and the day after that. And the now. This moment, how I live for now. This is what I need to focus on.

Friday, December 22, 2006

So Christmas is here...

It doesn't feel like it, not to me. Its been such a hellish week at work that I just don't feel any goodwill to anybody at the moment. The last two months or so seem to have been relentless. Not just long hours at work but everything else as well. Not that anything particularly bad or serious has happened; just the mounting pressure of the everyday being squeezed out by long hours at the office.

I think its also the weight of expectation that comes with this time of year that is partly responsible. Not that I try to let that affect me or get me down. I like Christmas but not to the extent that I obsess or even get excited about it anymore. For me, its a few days holiday when I can be with my family and enjoy their company with good food, drink and the usual old dross on the TV! Its simple and predictable for the most part and I like that.

I've deliberately avoided the shops for the past week. I take no pleasure in fighting my way through the heaving crowds desperate in their search for that last minute present. And I certainly don't appreciate all the unnecessary pressure that seems each year to become more and more attached with the run up to Christmas. It borders almost on the hysterical this desire to get everything done and finished by Christmas. Why? There will be another 365 days next year so what is the panic? In the job I do people seem to endlessly create artificial deadlines, which appear to serve no purpose other than to put everyone else under pressure to achieve them.

Frankly I am feeling exhausted and jaded by it all. The pleasure has been all but sucked out of it and I am beginning to think I'll be glad when Christmas is over.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The best of everything 2006

As part of my look back on the year gone by I wanted to share 10 of the best moments, events, memories etc of 2006 for me personally. So here goes with my 10 best of everything 2006:

1/. Best Film
Unquestionably Brokeback Mountain. Why? For so many reasons, many of which I have bored people to death with over the last 12 months! Personally, it is a triumph of film-making, a beautifully crafted and told story and a film that tackles some very difficult and challenging issues in a refreshing and open way without being judgemental.

2/. Best Album
Again this is an easy choice. It has to be MeatLoaf's Bat out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose. Just one fab song after another. Okay, so its over the top and sometimes a little camp but you just can't beat these songs for emotional power. This for me was MeatLoaf's most heartfelt album since Welcome to the Neighbourhood. Every song is a favourite and for me at least, an instant MeatLoaf classic.

3/. Best Song
I am indulging myself now! You know its going to be a MeatLoaf song... I was going to say The Future Ain't What it Used to Be (The endless night has got a hold of me, dark days are pulling me forward) or Seize the Night (So open up your arms and then get down on your knees. You're sucking on the darkness and you're ready to seize. Seize the night). But the one that really got me is What About Love, with the fabulous lyric, Once in a lifetime you'll find someone heaven sent for you. For a lifetime you'll feel there's a reason to believe in a love that's meant to be. I hope so.

4/. Best New Discovery
Thanks to Tim for this one and introducing me to Magners cider :-) I have to admit that I had long ago gone off cider finding most of them either too sweet or too dry. Magners though is the perfect balance and a drink that was designed for cool refreshment on a beautiful summer's day. Magic!

5/. Best Cultural Event
It had to be the BBC Proms. The first time I went was this year and I enjoyed two fab concerts. My favourite (and it is a close run thing) was the first on 24 August featuring Samuel Barber's First Essay for Orchestra and Mahler's stunning Fifth Symphony.

6/. Best Week
This is an easy choice, it was the week of 30 April to 6 May. Armed with a Heart of England rail rover I indulged my passion for rails and visiting new places in one. My travels during the week took me all over the Midlands and Central England to places as diverse as Crewe, Lichfield, Birmingham, Gloucester, Worcester, Shrewsbury. Warwick and Royal Leamington Spa. I am convinced that it was the finest week of weather all year and I have the photos to prove it! There was wall to wall sunshine each day and beautiful clear blue skies.

7/. Best Place
I've mentioned it already - Gloucester. Some mildly interesting facts about the place: it has the longest railway platform in Britain and is the most inland port in the UK. Gloucester Docks are a fascinating place to visit and clearly have much promise once all the development of new leisure facilities are finished. The Cathedral is one of the finest I've visited in a long while and the town itself is attractive and steeped in history, which dates back to the Romans.

8/. Best TV
This is a difficult one mainly because there has been so little in the way of 'good' TV this year. One of my highlights has been the second season of Battlestar Galactica, which I am revisiting again on DVD. There have been a couple of one-off programmes which have really impressed such as Stephen Fry's personal and painful exploration of manic depression and a fantastic if often unbearable documentary, Rain in my Heart, about alcoholism and its terrible consequences.

9/. Best Memory
It has to be Tim & Sharon's wedding in October. A wonderful day, a great weekend full of happiness and joy.

10/. Best of all 2006?
I made it to 30! I end the year in a new job and I've achieved and done many other things that I wanted to do during the last twelve months. The one thing that has made 2006 special has been my friends without whom I would not be able to look back on so many of the best and happiest times of the last 12 months.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Christmas card dilemma

I am sure most people when they write their Christmas cards do so just selecting the cards at random or working methodically through the box. If only I found it so easy. For me, writing Christmas cards has become a major moral dilemma! Often I will agonise over my choice of cards - does it look appropriate? Is the message the right tone? Will it offend the person I am sending it too or give the wrong message?


I despair of myself sometimes! Then there is the fact that some people at work don't like receiving Christmas cards but it seems unfair to give cards to some people and not others. Then does everyone celebrate Christmas and will they be offended if I give them a card?

Of course the choice of card also brings another whole raft of questions. Some cards are definitely nicer and more expensive than others. If I send a cheaper card to someone who I don't like much or don't know that well, is it rude or just disrespectful?

Finally, there's what to write inside. Do I just go with the person's name and mine and leave the rest to be said by the printed message or do I add my own words? What do I say if I do? As a rule I will never sign a card with 'Love' or any similarly affectionate sign-offs. It just seems so inappropriate for a man to say that in a card yet for a woman the word can be used almost at free will without it ever meaning anything than something genuinely innocent and generous. Why is that? Not that I would want to write 'Love, Mark' in cards to my male friends!

So you can see my dilemma?

Maybe next year I should not bother sending any cards at all and save myself the stress and worry, lol.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Review of 2006 Part 1 - January to March

I started the New Year in Romford, Essex, where I had seen the end of 2005 and welcomed the promise of 2006 with friends. This was the year when I would be 30 and not long into 2006 I was experiencing what in retrospect, was a crisis of sorts. Mainly wondering what had I achieved with my life to date and not really knowing where I was going and seemingly stuck in a rut. January for me is the cruellest month anyway with its short days and long nights, hardly helping to alleviate the general sense of malaise I felt at the beginning of 2006.

The year didn’t start too brightly with an appointment at the hospital on the 3rd for an ECG, which I had put off from October 2005. When I say put off, what I really mean is that I ‘conveniently’ forgot the date of the original appointment and by the time a new one had been arranged, it was January. I am not sure what I was so worried about – the ECG itself is quick and painless although the results did show a slight heart abnormality. Nothing serious although it still worries me from time to time.

The first weekend of 2006 found me in Essex again, this time with friends in Southend. This was just the boost I needed, getting to see my friends and having a laugh.

Normally the start of the year isn’t a great time for films and it’s rare that I get to the cinema, unless it’s to see a pre-Christmas release that I haven’t seen over the Christmas/New Year holiday. However, the film I did see at the end of January had an unexpectedly powerful and long-lasting effect on me. Brokeback Mountain was a film that I’d read very little about, I am not even sure why I went to see it. On the face of it, this is not my sort of film at all! Quite unexpectedly it was a film that connected with me at the time and I was drawn into the characters of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist and their tortured and ultimately doomed love affair. I think perhaps more than anything I was drawn to the despondency and resignation of Ennis, which at the time so mirrored my own feelings. I empathised with Ennis’ struggle to discover meaning and purpose to his life and moreover his struggle to find himself. I saw Brokeback Mountain at the cinema three times and each time I found something different in the story and each time it felt more raw and powerful. Rarely, if ever before, has a film got me like that.

The end of January saw me off on one my three bargain (and fairly epic) train journeys around the UK. This was courtesy of The Daily Mail, who were running a token-collect promotion, to get cheap tickets with a number of train companies. My first trip took me to Cardiff and my first proper visit to Wales. I can tentatively claim an earlier trip into Wales on a train from Chester to Wolverhampton (in 2004 I think) which briefly crossed the border, stopping at Wrexham General. Cardiff was impressive and I very much liked the city, making visits to Cardiff Castle and the National Museum & Gallery. I was surprised at how compact the city centre was although I didn’t have enough time to explore and do everything I wanted. As a taster of Wales it was very positive and encourages me to go back again and venture a bit further next time. Still MK to Cardiff and back in a day is quite far enough!

February was a busy month for going to the cinema. Not only did I see Brokeback Mountain twice more, I also saw The New World and Munich. The former was very much under-rated and seemed to only be on at the local Cineworld for about a week before it disappeared. I liked its style of broken narrative, long, wistful shots of nature and just moments of breathing in the beauty and wonder of the flora and fauna. James Horner’s score added to the feeling that this was a long dream-sequence, a sort of very pleasant high for a couple of hours! Munich by contrast was a much darker piece and I admit that I found at times, it very difficult to watch. I am particularly squeamish when it comes to violence and the film’s tense direction, added to my unease.

Another of my aforementioned epic day trips took me to Plymouth a couple of days before my birthday. I remember the trip there quite vividly as I was hung over and feeling rather sorry for myself from the night before, when we’d gone to the pub after work, ostensibly to celebrate my 30th. What was only going to be a couple of drinks took me many pints later to closing time! However, a pasty (which was my breakfast) at Paddington did the trick, no doubt soaking up all that excess alcohol and giving me a much needed perk to get through the day!

The train journey to Plymouth is my favourite, especially once into Devon and speeding along the sea wall between Teignmouth and Dawlish before the line turns inland, skirting the edge of Dartmoor, which that morning had a fine dusting of snow. Plymouth itself is one of my favourite cities; it has similarities to my home town of Portsmouth and my current home of Milton Keynes. Like Portsmouth, Plymouth is a naval city and its heritage is steeped in the sea. Surely everyone knows the famous story of Drake finishing a game of bowls on the Hoe as the Spanish Armada approached? Plymouth’s similarity to Milton Keynes can be seen in the design of the city centre, with its wide boulevard’s and regular, angular shaped buildings. The centre of Plymouth (like Portsmouth) was extensively damaged in World War II but unlike Portsmouth, they made a rather better job of the post-war rebuilding work or at least I think so. In consequence, Plymouth is a fine modern city with much to offer, even a day-tripper like me. It is a place that has many happy memories as we had a couple of enjoyable family holidays there when I was still living with my parents. Its one of those places that whenever I visit, I have this feeling of having come ‘home.’

March was a busy month – saw two films at the pictures – Good Night and Good Luck and V for Vendetta. The latter was not a happy day. I met with Joe after work on the Saturday for the trip to Birmingham to see the film at the Electric Cinema, a fine establishment and the oldest cinema in Britain apparently. Unfortunately I wasn’t feeling well and as soon as the film finished I made my excuses to Joe and Derek and headed home. I remember that Saturday being a particularly cold one with a chilling wind. Not untypical weather for Birmingham, which always seems to be cold and windy whenever I am there! I spent most of the next day and the following week in bed with about the worst dose of flu I can ever remember.

The weekend before I had been home to Portsmouth and on the Sunday made the journey down to Devon (again!), this time to Honiton for the Exe-Wing Fundraisers Star Wars Day. This was the third (if I recall correctly) one of these events I had attended.

The end of March was time for my third and final journey with a Daily Mail bargain rail ticket, this time to York. I love York, not least because it is home to the National Railway Museum, an irresistible treat for a train buff like me! York, like Plymouth is somewhere I have spent many happy hours and a couple of short breaks and a place that I like to return too at least once every other year. I would go more often but the travelling and cost are normally prohibitive.

So that brings me to the end of my look back at the first three months of 2006…

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

More wonderful music

Today we had a share out of our syndicate's lottery winnings for the year. Not much - just £35 each! However, I decided to treat myself at lunchtime. I looked through the DVD's - tempted by the reduced price Six Feet Under and West Wing DVD's but still think these will come down even more after Christmas. Even considered buying Superman Returns on DVD but I have mixed feelings about that film. So took myself off to the classical music section of Virgin.

Now here 's something I'll never understand. Why is it that the classical music section in Virgin is always partitioned off from the rest of the store? The one in MK, even has its own tills! Is it to keep the rabble out and allow the 'well-to-do' to browse for their higher class of music uninterrupted or is it an admission of some embarrassment? It seems that classical music should be tucked away and not talked about like a particularly personal medical condition.

Absolute nonsense in my view. Classical music is as egalitarian as current popular music. Okay, I am not suggesting that everyone will like or want to buy classical music, any more than I'll be rushing out anytime soon to buy the latest jazz or rap album. The point is though, it is just another valid and enriching choice in the broad spectrum of musical tastes. It doesn't need to be tucked away and hidden behind a glass screen. I think there is something almost intimidating about the fact that you are clearly walking into a demarcated - a different- part of the store.

Anyhows, I purchased three stunning bargains, which I have no shame in rambling on about now. I love classical music! Then, I also love lots of other types of music and I was thinking about this as I was making my way out of the store, singing along (in my head I hasten to add!) to Madonna and later in my local shop, Abba. In fact I think my musical tastes are quite eclectic. Lets see my CD racks are albums and singles from artists as diverse as Annie Lennox, MeatLoaf, Coolio, Abba, Bee Gees, Lionel Richie, David Gray, Nina Simone, Diana Ross, Genesis, Celine Dion and I could go on but probably shouldn't! Then the non-popular stuff like my host of soundtracks from the likes of John Williams, James Horner, Hans Zimmer, Alan Silvestri, Jerry Goldsmith etc, my classical music albums, military band music, music and songs from shows, TV themes, then the really obscure stuff like Vangelis, the BBC Olympic Theme for the Atlanta Games (Tara's Theme), The X-Files Theme single and more. So yeah, a fairly broad and some might say unusual mix there! Isn't it good though to like more than one type or style of music? I like the fact that I can pick music to match my mood and feeling.

Back to today then and I managed to get myself some great additions to my classical music collection. The first CD is Spartacus by Aram Khatchaturian. This features the fantastic Adagio of Spartacus and Phyrgia from the ballet suite, Spartacus. That particular piece is probably most familiar as the theme to the Onedin Line. The CD also includes the suties to Masquerade and Gayaneh. This is my first purchase of Khatchaturian so I am looking forward to sitting down and listening to this.

I could hardly resist adding to my collection of Mahler's symphonies so had to grab this one at a cheap price: Symphony No 9 - conducted by Sir John Barbirolli with the Berliner Philharmoniker. This is an EMI Recording of the Century dating from 1964. Before I got as interested in classical music as I am now, I thought people were being elitist when they priveliged certain recordings over others. While, I don't have an expert ear, you can tell the difference in the quality of a piece between recordings and also the tempo with which it is played is often different. Again I am looking forward to hearing this as I am a particular fan of Mahler and this was his penultimate symphony. At the time of writing he was just a few short years from his untimely death at the age of 51.

Finally, some unashamedly British music in the form of William Walton, who like Vaughan Williams, is amongst my favourites of recent contemporary British composers. This is another EMI CD opening with the rousing Spitfire Prelude and Fugue, an eternal favourite of mine and so heroically British. Also on this disc are two of my favourite marches - Crown Imperial and Orb & Sceptre, written as marches for the 1937 and 1953 coronation's respectively. There are a selection of other overtures and some of Walton's film music for Hamlet and Richard III. This is another surprisingly old recording, dating back to 1969 but the quality is excellent and fresh.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Does multicultralism work?

Earlier today I made a rather bold and frankly flippant remark that I didn't feel multiculturalism has worked in Britain. When I was being challenged on this, I found myself becoming quite defensive and a little concerned about some of my comments because there seems to me, at least, to be very little real debate on this issue. All too often, the issue of multiculturalism is tainted with the completely unrelated view that to pose a challenge, is being racist. I fundamentally disagree with that view however I feel that my comments were being measured and because I don't believe in the principle of multiculturalism, that I am perceived as racist.

It is quite interesting looking at different nations and comparing their societies with ours. I am particularly fascinated by America in this respect, which arguably is the most diverse nation on the planet, yet it emphatically does not embrace multiculturalism. American society and values are very much White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) in nature, even though there are significant minorities for example of Latin Americans and Jews. The American cultural model for many years was one of assimilation. Other cultural identities were absorbed into the prevailing WASP culture, thereby preserving perhaps the homogenity and integrity of national identity. There has in more recent years been a move against assimilation and the emergence of hyphenated identities such as Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans and Japanese-Americans, for example. These hyphenated identities then promote further questions about where the loyalty of these individuals rests. For example in the case of Jews, is their allegience to Israel first and America second? For the Japanese-Americans, questions of their loyalty were starkly addressed in WWII, when tens of thousands of legitimate Americans of Japanese origin, were detained at what were effectively concentration camps for the duration of the war. Also the more important issue and one which I think equally pertains to Britain, is that if you accept multiculturalism and allow other cultures to assert their values and individual identities, where does the core of national identity come from?

I firmly believe that our society is enriched by people from diverse cultures, ethnicities and religions. Together they provide a vibrant and inclusive society but there is a risk, I feel that multiculturalism has gone too far. That in effect, our sense of national identity has become too diluted or somehow lost in the noble aim of making society welcoming and equal to all. It is perhaps an unresolvable problem - how do you embrace diversity while retaining unity? Can you have both? Should everyone be equal because quite fundamentally we are not all equal - for example we are not all of equal intelligence.

My own view is that multiculturalism damages both our national identity and does not do justice either to maintaining that diverse and vibrant society that I feel is so important. Rather it creates differentiated identities, people who do not necessarily see themselves primarily as British. Being British doesn't mean that you surrender your own culture, language or religion. You can still have those things but I feel it is important that people should identify themselves firstly and primarily as British. More importantly they should feel proud of that shared identity and want to be part of a rich, diverse and inclusive society where they feel they belong. I think all to often multiculturalism and the differentiated identities it creates, leaves groups cut off from the prevailing culture and unable to integrate. This of course is not a one way street; to my mind it is an inherent responsibility of all of us, as members of the host society to help others integrate, share and enjoy our culture.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Getting my soap box out

Over the last couple of days there have been several stories in the news, which have made me angry. The first was a story that I heard yesterday on the radio concerning Hertfordshire Police and the distribution of an e-mail that contained images of a black man being decapitated as he fled from police officers in the USA. The preoccupation of this story seemed to be whether the image was regarded as racist or not and the comments I heard on the radio were polarised as to whether it was or wasn't. To me though that line of argument completely missed the point. The more important fact here, was the fact that a number of people in the Police Force felt it appropriate to circulate what I feel are obscene images. Why would anyone wish to see a picture of man or for that matter a woman being decapitated? What perversion drives people to look at things like that? It is beyond belief that people would wish to forward such disgusting images to their colleagues.

What I found surprising that as a result of an internal investigation, no sackings were made, only reprimand's for the 100 or so staff both officers and civilians that were involved in circulating the e-mail. That I find unacceptable and sends completely the wrong message. To my mind any member of the Police Force who participated in sending this e-mail has lost the trust of the community and it must surely bring into question their integrity as serving officers. They should all have been sacked in my view for bringing the Force into disrepute, undermining the respect and position of authority that they hold and for me, above all else, for completely reprehensible and irresponsible actions.

I personally make a point at work of never sending on any e-mails, which contain non-work related content, whether they may be simply jokes or anything else. Most of the e-mails I receive containing non-work related content I never read and delete immediately. My work e-mail is not provided for my personal use, it is there for business purposes and I respect that the company expects me to use it responsibly as I am representing the company in any communications that I send.

The other story that has got my blood boiling both yesterday on the radio and in the papers is the hysterical reporting of the increase in rail fares planned from January. As usual, this annual event, provides an opportunity for the media to trot out the same lame attacks on the railways and to make erroneous and misleading comparisons between the costs of rail travel and other forms of transport.

The facts are as follows. The railways have two main sources of funding - the fare box (i.e. what we pay as passengers) and government funding (from the taxpayer). The government has decided that subsidy to the railways should reduce and therefore the industry has to raise more of its revenue through the fare box, meaning that fares are rising, in some instances somewhat above the rate of inflation. The other important point to bear in mind is that in the recent franchise awards for South West Trains and First Great Western both companies have agreed over the term of their franchises to pay the government premiums of more than £1 billion. There are clearly only two ways that such massive premiums can be delivered: reduce costs by cutting staff and services or increase revenue by raising fares. With more franchises to be re-let next year there is likely to be increasing pressure on both incumbent operators and new bidders to promise to make similar returns to government over the term of the new franchises.

Fares are divided into two categories - regulated fares and unregulated fares. Regulated fares account for about 40% of all tickets sold, such as season tickets and saver tickets and will rise by RPI + 1% or 4.3%. This is a formula agreed with the now defunct Strategic Rail Authority. Unregulated fares such as cheap day returns, long distance open tickets etc are set by the individual operators and some will rise by over 6%.

Looking at the operators that I most often use - this is the average increase for their unregulated fares from January 2007:

Virgin West Coast, 6.6%
Virgin Cross Country, 4.3%
Silverlink County, 4.3%
South West Trains, 5.3%
Central Trains, 5.7%

These are not massive increases and those for Virgin Cross Country and Silverlink County are in line with the increases for regulated fares.

It is also worth pointing out that only around 10% of all tickets sold are full price tickets (according to the Association of Train Operating Companies). Many rail companies offer advance purchase discounted tickets although the complexity of the system probably puts off many people from using these. Then there are also, depending on where you live, railcards available, which can save a 1/3 off the cost of fares.

Only recently I had a trip to Manchester - the return trip cost me £25 plus a £15 First Class supplement for the return trip, so total cost £40!

What the media also fail to mention is the massive investment that has gone into the railways and is on-going. Living on the West Coast Main Line, the evidence of that investment is everywhere to be seen. There are promises of a much improved service from 2008/2009 with major infrastructure improvements such as an additional platform at Milton Keynes Central, a new hourly service serving the Trent Valley, half-hourly services to Manchester and/or Liverpool and the promise of longer trains. Investment costs money and it has to be paid for. The disadvantage that rail has over the car, for example, is that the costs of rail travel are felt directly by the passenger whereas with a car many of the costs are deferred or are hidden.

I wish the media would stop bashing the railways with ill-informed reporting and got to the 'facts.' Even a little balance would be good from time to time!

Monday, November 27, 2006

The wonderful music of Samuel Barber

I have certainly mentioned in this blog before my fondness for the music of Samuel Barber, who I would argue was one of the finest American composers of the last century. Today, I received the latest CD in the Naxos collection of his works - Choral Music - in the American Classics series. This was a bargain purchase from - just over £3 for a 60-minute CD of pure bliss.

One piece is particularly familiar, Agnus Dei, which is Barber's own vocal arrangement of his famous and popular Adagio for Strings. I've already got this piece a couple of times on other recordings of Barber's work but I enjoy listening to new versions or recordings of the same piece, especially when they are as good as this. Agnus Dei takes the words of the Latin Mass and sets them to the Adagio for Strings, which itself was originally written as a movement of a much larger work. It is extraordinarily powerful and moving.

A much simpler but equally haunting work on the same CD is A Stopwatch and a Ordnance Map, which combines my favourite orchestral instrument - three timpani - with a male chorus to chilling effect. This is a dark and unsettling arrangement, completely at odds with the more romantic and bright compositions that mainly feature on this collection.

I was also interested to see that one of the pieces The Monk and his Cat, features a text arranged by WH Auden, whose poem Night Mail was set to music to memorable effect by Benjamin Britten, featuring in the GPO film of the same name. I have Auden's Night Mail pinned to my noticeboard in the kitchen; its one of my favourite poems.

I don't really know a great deal about Samuel Barber and the liner notes for this CD do little to illuminate the man. I would dearly love to find a good biography of Barber as I am fascinated by what inspired and drove him as a composer.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sunday morning

A perfect piece of Sunday morning music came on the radio this morning just as I was about to switch it off - Mahler's Adagietto from Symphony No. 5. I adore this piece although I can never quite decide whether it is romantic or melancholic. It immediately reminds me of the film Death in Venice, where it was extensively used, conjuring vividly to mind desperate longing and sadness. The piece was written by Mahler as a 'love song' to his wife Alma and depending on the way it is played can either be a funeral dirge or an uplifting and beautiful romance. I like it as both; it means something different each time I hear it. Perfect as I say for Sunday mornings and a gentle way to be eased into the day.

If I am disciplined today I should be cracking on with some reading and essay preparation for my OU course. Trouble is, I feel so tired from the week just gone by. Five days travelling to and from London and working yesterday in MK, I've been getting up at 6am every morning, leaving home just before 7am and getting home not much before 7pm every night. I realise its taken quite a toll and moreover I've been eating badly and that has been making me feel unwell. If anyone had said to me before that what you eat affects the way you feel, I would have been dismissive. However, I've really noticed the difference it has made to me this last week or two.

On the plus side my first box of organic fruit and veg arrived on Friday and it looks and smells lovely. I am going to be cooking tonight so will get stuck into making myself a nice roast dinner - got some lovely parsnips, carrots and potatoes. The apples are delicious although the oranges to me look a little pale and not quite ripe or are they supposed to look that way rather than that suspiciously bright orange colour you get if buying from the supermarket?

A roast dinner is for me the ultimate comfort food. If I do the same as I did last week, I make enough for two meals, so that it saves me cooking on another night in the week. As I say not getting home until 7pm means that I am normally not in the mood for making anything and tend to just eat a sandwich or have a bowl of soup. Fortunately there is an excellent restaurant at work so I've been eating my main meals there most days.

I've also notice that by not eating properly and not doing any exercise at all how I feel so much more tired than before and really do lack the energy that I've had previously. I think it's all related. Although the thought of doing half-hour or more on the exercise bike every night isn't particularly appealing, I know that once I get into the routine again, I will feel better and have more energy. Still only one more week in London and then back to MK for work.

I have mixed feelings about moving back to the MK office. One of the nice things about being in London is that we are very much away from all the politics and 'atmosphere' that is present in MK. Not to mention it is a much nicer and more comfortable building that I am working in currently. But not having the travelling every day will make a huge difference and allow me to get back into a more regular routine.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


One of my less favourable characteristics is that I often bear grudges against people. Not that there are many people that I don't get along with but when someone crosses me and in doing so hurt my feelings, I don't forget it. I know that holding grudges isn't sensible and it serves no real purpose but there have been just one or two occasions when I have felt so angry that I can't forgive and forget any more than I get just let rip and get my anger out in the open and done with.

Today at work for example we had a visitor to the office. Someone who I used to work with and get on very well with. For whatever reason in the fairly dim and distant past, we had a falling out. Most of my fallings out with people, when they do rarely happen, are usually over something very minor and petty. Unfortunately I have a terrible habit of blowing things out of all proportion and making something that is a relatively minor and easily resolvable dispute something much more deeply personal and significant. Something like that happened with this particular person and I said some things at the time, which I now regret. Maybe I am too much of a coward to admit I was wrong and say sorry. I've thought about it and was forced into a humiliating apology at work over some of the things I said, which were uncharacteristically unprofessional. It is that more than anything which leaves a bitter taste.

This particular person is about my age and has certainly done alright for themselves. They're in a much more influential and better paid job than I am and certainly were always and are a popular and friendly colleague. Indeed one of my colleagues in my previous job was shocked that I'd fallen out with this person and felt that this was completely out of character. To a large extent they are right. My actions were completely out of character at the time and I am regretting it immensely now but I just can't bring myself to bite the bullet as it were, say I am sorry, patch up our differences and repair the working relationship between us.

The cold reality is certainly that I am very jealous of this person that I have fallen out with and that makes me feel very bitter. Its stupid I know because we got on alright and although we never worked together closely, we always had a good rapport and a laugh.

I guess what I am getting to is this: is there a way out of the current situation? Can I move on without losing face and how do I explain away my frostiness and at times downright rudeness towards this person? Or should I just forget and put it behind me as an experience I can learn from and move on?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Some nice things

Towards the end of last week I got a flyer through the door advertising a company which delivers organice produce. Previously I've always been a bit 'anti-organic', it seems so expensive in the shops and I've been doubtful whether it really is organic or for that matter tastes any better. However, this company Abel & Cole ( really impressed me. Not only is what they offer organic it is also grown locally, which has got to be better for the environment and the local economy. What really got me hooked though was the fact that they have a great web site and it was so easy to set up an order to be delivered regularly every Friday and I don't have to be in when they deliver, which is a great help. I am impressed by the friendliness and easiness of using the service and I am looking forward to my first delivery of fresh organic fruit and vegetables this Friday.

Recently I've also signed up for the NSPCC £2 a month campaign. It seems such a small amount that I don't notice its gone every month but NSPCC is one of those charities whose work I care about and feel is vitally important. Although I don't have any children of my own it breaks my heart to see or hear about children suffering and okay I am not giving a lot but it helps to make even the smallest difference, its worth it.

Often I find its the small things in life that mean the most to me. Today for instance, I had a card from my friends who married at the end of October thanking me for coming to the wedding and for the present. I thought that was a lovely gesture and I am very touched. It is these little things, the fact that somebody has made a little bit of an effort that means so very much to me personally.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Its a week now that I have been working in London and I am surprised just how much the travelling has affected me. Leaving home just before 7am and not getting back until almost 12 hours later, does take a toll! It isn't solely the fact that I feel too tired most evenings to do anything, it is the knock on effect that then has on other aspects of my life - essentially having to cram most things into the two days of the weekend, which normally I would have done across the week. I am assured by those that have been doing the travelling for a while that it is something that you get used too although as I've only got a couple more weeks to go down in London, I probably won't.

Yesterday I was in Manchester. The original reason for my destination was the Collectormania convention at G-MEX. Friday night though I was so tired that I seriously considered not going at all but then that would be a waste of £25 spent buying the train tickets. I didn't go to Collectormania as it happens anyway, although I did have an enjoyable day in Manchester.

Thing is, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that this convention just wasn't for me. I don't really enjoy conventions, certainly not on such a large scale. I don't collect much and getting autographs no longer has the appeal it once did. More likely I would spend the day walking aimlessly around a great hall, no doubt having to make polite small talk with people that I neither care for nor am particularly interested in meeting. Besides, no one cared for my absence. Moreover, I thought about the reasons why I was going and they weren't because I wanted too. Often I will do things that I believe will please or be pleasing to someone else when they aren't really what I want to do or places I would want to go. Suchaltruismm is fair to an extent but it is neither rewarding nor satisfying for me. I feel, perhaps unfairly, that I often privilege other's needs above my own and then resent them for it. It is my weakness that I resent most.

Instead I had an enjoyable afternoon and evening in Manchester, visiting The Lowry and Imperial War Museum North in Salford and rounding off the day with some Xmas shopping. And I did enjoy it because I did things at my own pace, visited what I wanted to see and spent some quality time doing things that I enjoyed. Yeah, its selfish but I find 'me' time is very important. I enjoy my own space and company most of the time and sometimes I just need to get away from everyone and everything else.

The truth is sometimes I can't cope with it all. I don't mean to the point of suicide, not that serious but just that I can't deal with all the pressures and expectations around me, mostly of my own making. At the heart of this is the contradiction between the person I am and the person I perceive myself as/want to be. They're polar opposites and not likely to ever be one and the same. Most of the time I live with this contradiction with complete ambivalence. The last week and a bit though I've been going through one of my more bleak moods. I wouldn't describe it as depression because that is something altogether more serious but the way I feel at times has certainly been debilitating. I am conscious of when I am like that and I feel the need to be invisible, to completely withdraw and hide away.

What gets me most in these bleak periods is that little voice in my head that tells me I am a failure. Its awful, I don't know that I can describe it. I feel so sad and small, completely worthless. Its like being wounded repeatedly, each cut a little sharper and more painful than the last. I feel pathetic. The self-loathing is completely destructive and unproductive. It becomes a cycle that takes me down a little bit more each time and at moments when it has seemed really bad, there seems to be no way out. But there is, I know there is. There has to be and that is what keeps me going.

What started off this particular episode was what normally starts it all off. The certain realisation that I am getting older and am still single. That doesn't always bother me, now and again though it does. It takes over. I've never said any of this before because I am so afraid. I keep my fear to myself; my real fear. I don't want to live to 70 or 80 and still be alone, to have never fallen in love. I see all the people around me either in or embarking on relationships and I wonder why I can't form anything meaningful with somebody else. And I know why. Because I am afraid.

I can't say what I am afraid of exactly. I think I know. I don't want to admit it because if I say it then I won't be admitting it just to myself. If I could see beyond and see a different and happy me at the end of it, then that would be different. I don't see that though.

I feel better for saying what little I have. It has been going over and over in my mind for a few days. I find writing this a catharsis, a way to bring out some of the bad stuff inside.

I know I will be better. The dark mood of the last week is beginning to lift. It will come back again, I know that too. For now though I want to put that behind me and move on.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

New opportunities

It's been a busy week and a strange one in many ways. I won't dwell on the bad stuff at the moment; suffice to say there have been some difficult times recently.

Friday was my last day in my current team at work. I am moving to a new team on Monday and will be working in London for three weeks before returning to MK at the beginning of December. I am mixed with a kind of anticipation and dread. I am not looking forward to the traveling and I feel a little intimidated about the thought of being in London. That contrasts with the excitement of starting a new job at a new office and all the fun things about starting somewhere new. Fortunately I know most of the people I will be working with, albeit not that well and there are some new people starting around the same time as me, so I don't feel too bad about that.

Part of me I think is worried that I am not going to enjoy this new job as much as my last. I've been working in my previous job for 5 years and I think that was enough; its time to move on to something new. On the other hand, I had found my comfort zone. Although there were some issues I had with a couple of the people I worked with, I knew what to expect everyday, what the work was like and how to deal with those I didn't get on with. Maybe its good to be moving about of my comfort zone. It'll be an opportunity to forge new working relationships and get to grips with something a bit different from what I have been doing.

My leaving present was £50 of vouchers. May sound boring and uninspiring but actually I was quite pleased. I took myself down to London yesterday partly to get a flavour of what it will be like come Monday morning and also to cheer myself up with some shopping. It didn't help that I was still feeling sore from Friday night and the one or two many drinks I'd had down the pub! Not to mention all the crap I'd been stuffing in me all day at work - the cakes, sausage rolls etc.

To cheer my mood, I bought Battlestar Galactica Season 2 DVD, which I have wanted for ages, two CD's - Robbie Williams' Greatest Hits and Nina Simone's Songs to Sing, plus three books - 50 Days that Changed History, England: 1000 Things You Need to Know and Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits. So I made good use of those vouchers I got!

Today will mainly be studying as I've got a little behind with my reading and also preparing for Monday and making sure I've got everything ready.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

More reading material

A new Borders book shop opened in MK on Friday and is very conveniently just 10 minutes walk from where I work. So yesterday, after work and before my aforementioned journey home, I had a look round. Wow! I love Borders. Its a huge shop, feels like walking into the Central Library, with its row upon row of shelving, massive selection of magazines and a decent sci-fi section. I didn't even venture upstairs to the Starbucks, music and DVD section!

Needless to say being in Borders and a lover of books, I couldn't leave empty-handed especially as they were offering a 15% discount on everything. So I came away with two magazines and three books.

Keeping up with my interest in all things American, my two main purchases were American Empire: Blood and Iron by Harry Turtledove and The Clash of Civilisations & The Remaking of the World Order by Samuel P Huntington. American Empire is a counter-factual novel set in the aftermath of the Great War. I feel it would have been an advantage if I had read Turtledove's previous Great War books but it does have a handy precis at the beginning to set the scene and introduce the main characters. Essentially, Turtledove writes 'what if?' alternate histories and American Empire starts with a radically different America divided into the USA (which has annexed Canada) and the Confederate States of America (CSA), occupying the southern states, and recently defeated in the Great War. Meanwhile in Europe, it appears that Britain and her allies have been defeated by Germany! Its a huge canvas and one of the first part of a cycle of these novels and I am fascinated by how things will pan out. What shape will the world be in by the end of it?

The second book, by Samuel Huntington is described as the 'classic study of international relations' and a work that was quoted by both Francis Fukuyama and in my OU course on the United States. Having recently finished Fukuyama's After the Neocons, I have a hunger for books on international relations and politics. It joins my brief (although expanding section) of books on America including a detailed history of the Presidency, biographies of FDR, Johnson and Nixon and some more general studies of American history and contemporary politics.

I finished Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land last week and was somewhat perturbed to discover when I was in the Library this week that there is another, unexpurgated version of this novel now available. The version I had read (published in the 1960s) was censored as Heinlein's work was considered too controversial at the time. I found it somewhat impenetrable and the coarseness of some of Heinlein's language oddly outdated. However, if I took anything from it, there were two underlying messages. The first appeared to me to be that all religion is fake, corrupt and offers false hope for the weak. The point seemed to be that we are all God, that it is within us and is us. It reminds me of something that has stuck with me from my school days - the idea that we are all the centre of our own universe. In other words everything revolves around us. We make our destiny and create our own distinction of right from wrong. We have the power within to change and to do good and to atone for sin. We should not look beyond ourselves for the answers to our failings. The other point that struck me was the needlessness of sexual jealousy and that sex is something that should be shared as means of growing closer together. Rather than being something that is seen as being private and generally only between a man and a woman, sex should be open and should be shared freely, even between those of the same sex.

Currently, apart from Turtledove's American Empire, I am reading Frederick Taylor's Dresden, the definitive account of the Allied bombing of the German city of Dresden on 13 February 1945. This is a very well written account, aiming to bring balance and truth to the events of that fateful night.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Happy days and Saturdays

There are some days when I just feel full of euphoria and contentment. They don't come often but like today I feel on a high. Don't know why. Nothing particularly great or nice has happened. I just feel fine about life.

Saturdays are my favourite days of the week, which probably helps. I try to treat Saturdays as 'me days' where I do something that I want to. Every other day of the week (including Sundays) is normally occupied with work or course-work or chores. Saturday though is the day that I set aside to do the things I want. Often that means setting out early on a trip somewhere. On various Saturday's this year I've been as far afield as Plymouth, York, Carlisle and Cardiff. I love the adventure of a long journey and the anticipation of arriving either at somewhere familiar or new.

I don't always set off on such epic day trips. Most often it will be a day out somewhere local and quite often around Milton Keynes. The longer I am here and the more I see, I realise that I am beginning to see this place as my home and falling in love with it. Like everywhere else, MK is not perfect. It may have been sold in the 1980s as an urban utopia but you cannot manufacture the 'perfect city' although they made a damned good effort.

One of the reasons for my good mood today is the lovely walk home I took from work. This is one of my more idiosyncratic pleasures. Namely, after working on a Saturday morning and assuming I have nothing to bother me for the afternoon, I will try and find the longest and most circuitous route home. At all costs trying to avoid the main roads (which is surprisingly easy in MK) and exploring some of the other estates and green spaces. Today, my walk took me via Loughton village, the Teardrop Lakes and the Shenley's into North Furzton.

Despite the popular misconception, MK is not all concrete cows and roundabouts. There are many delightful parks and open spaces, rivers, canals, lakes and woods. The nicer parts are often hidden from the motorist and although MK is the city of the motor car, it is only as a pedestrian that you appreciate just what a wonderfully green city it is.

Its these simple pleasures - long walks, the open air - that give me a real buzz. It's funny to think that sometimes I almost forget that I am in a city with a population of over 200,000. Take this afternoon for example, as soon as I came into North Furzton, I was struck by the peacefulness. You rarely see anyone else walking along the redways and often the only accompaniment is the sound of bird song. Traffic and the bustle of a city are far away memories. I like the peace and quiet and the fact that all the amenities of a major city are close at hand. Its that unique balance that makes MK such a nice place to live.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Remembering Steam

One of the books I will be returning to the library tomorrow is The Best of Southern Steam: The Final Decade. This is a lovely book charting the final decade of steam on the former BR Southern Region. I know most people would sniff at the idea of buying a book of pictures of steam trains but indulge me for a minute or six.

These photographs are more than just pictures of steam locomotives puffing at the end of long and heavy trains. It's a much about the techniques of composition and what's going on around the subject and in the background. It is a thoughtful portrait of not only a railway age that has disappeared but a whole way of life that has been lost. Gone are many of the quaint branch lines featured in this book as have the well dressed ladies. As much as anything this book is a social commentary on changing attitudes of Britain as it is the passing of the steam age into oblivion.

For all that though, it still is a steam buffs dream through and through. The pictures I think are gorgeous, capturing beautifully the power and grace of magnificent steam engines like Bullied's 4-6-2 'Pacifics', built for the Southern Railway. I am looking at a page now, depicting three of these locos - a Merchant Navy and two Battle of Britain class locomotives. They're all in their original streamlined condition, not falling fate to the rebuilding that was undertaken by British Railways.

I know most people will wonder what all the fuss is about. I've always been drawn to steam engines though and these particular locos that I mentioned are my favourite of them all. They were designed by Oliver Bullied, the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Southern Railway and began to enter service from 1941 onwards. In all 140 locomotives were built in three similar classes. These were the Merchant Navy, Battle of Britain and West Country classes. All 30 of the Merchant Navy class locomotives were rebuilt under BR, having their streamlined casing removed and 60 of the so-called 'Light Pacifics' of the Battle of Britain and West Country classes were also rebuilt.

The locomotives were called 'Pacifics' because of their wheel arrangement (it's an American term) denoting 4 front axles, 6 main driving axles and 2 trailing axles, hence the configuration 4-6-2. They were used extensively on express services from London to the South Coast and the West Country hauling famous trains such as the Bournemouth Belle, The Golden Arrow and The Pines Express. They survived in steam right to the end on the Southern Region in 1967 and more than 30 have made it into preservation.

In 2004 I was very lucky to enjoy a trip on a train hauled by Battle of Britain Class 34067 Tangmere on a round trip from London Victoria via Clapham, the Hounslow Loop, Staines, Guildford, Redhill and the Brighton Main Line back via Clapham to Victoria. This was the first and only time that I have experienced steam on the main line and its something I will always remember.

It was so exciting to see Tangmere at Victoria, receiving the attention of a film star from admiring enthusiasts and intending passengers, hissing and puffing with expectant energy. To think that this was once an extremely common sight! Under the grand train sheds of stations like Victoria, it is sometimes hard to imagine just what noisy, smelly and smokey places these would have been. And just how romantic and fun the age of steam was.

The best part of this whole trip was the spirited run up the Brighton Main Line from Redhill back to Victoria, passing astonished commuters waiting for their trains at stations en route. They must have thought that they'd fallen through a temporary hole in time! One thing is certain; that when a steam train whistles, everyone turns to look. There something fantastic about seeing this magnificent metal beast shovelling great clouds of grey-black smoke into the sky. You just don't get that kind of thrill on a Pendolino!

That is why I've always been so enthralled with steam. It is man and machine battling the gradients and the elements. There is something alive in the smell and sight of a steam engine storming its way along the line which is so absent from any other form of transport.

Hopefully one day I will get to experience main line steam again. In the meantime though I have lovely books like The Best of Southern Steam to remind me of what it was like.

Monday, October 30, 2006

An uphill struggle

I have been prescribed new pills by the doctor to control my hypertension and left ventricular hypertrophy. The latter is a fancy way of saying, a thickening of the heart muscle. The irony is not lost on me, that the only muscle in my body that is getting bigger, is the one that shouldn't be! It's not a serious problem although my blood pressure has crept up. I need to get it down and keep it under control. The warning is stark. If I don't then I run the risk of heart failure and increase significantly the risk of having a stroke or a heart attack. The reason I have hypertrophy is precisely becasue I have had undiagnosed hypertension for a long time. I find it bizarre that such a potentially serious condition can have no symptoms and I have probably had it for years before I was diagnosed last year.

Hopefully this course of tablets will not have such an adverse effect on me as the last, which really did begin to make me feel ill. The doctor however thinks that the more likely cause has been rapid changes in blood pressure, probably not helped by the fact that I adopted a stop-start approach to taking the last lot of pills.

I know that I need to loose weight, that is about the most self-evident statement there is. I am doing more exercise, although having a night off tonight; I am still feeling a little sore from the weekend! Also, its about changing my diet and thinking more carefully about what I am eating particularly cutting down on my fat intake. More importantly I think it is about analysing my habits and the sometimes compulsive nature of my eating.

I get easily demoralised though. I feel like I should feel and notice a change almost immediately and I know that just isn't going to happen. Weight loss has to be gradual to be sustainable and its got to be an on-going thing, not just something I can think about now and again, when it feels like a good idea. Sometimes, I wonder if it would help if I had someone to shout at me and tell me what a fat slob I am. Maybe a guilt trip or insults would give me the motivation to stick too healthier eating and exercising. I don't think its enough for me to say that I am doing it for myself, there has to be another goal to it. Its not easy and I know it will be an uphill struggle but if its my future health on the line, I really must make more of an effort and now.


It is rare that a book will annoy me so much that I'll give up reading it. However, I really can't stomach any more of Anthony Summers' The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon. While it would be a gross misrepresentation to say that Nixon was just a deeply misunderstood man, this book goes to the other extreme as a vicious and vindictive character assassination. Summers clearly has no time for his subject, dwelling endlessly on Nixon's alleged alcoholism, drug abuse and mental instability, whilst also heavily suggesting that he was an abusive husband and a compulsive liar. What comes through it all is Nixon as a lonely and troubled man, dominated his whole life by the overbearing presence of his mother, Hannah Nixon, and a terrible fear of failure.

Nixon was undoubtedly a complex character and there were dark facets to his character but Summers doesn't appear at all interested in getting into what made Nixon tick. Instead his book is just one assertion after another, backed up with very little evidence and sources, which are questionable in their impartiality. Yet, Summers makes no attempt to address this or balance up the views he presents. It is all a one-sided swipe at Nixon, demonising a man, who whilst in office did much good.

As an example, Summers attacks Nixon's war record. This after dismissing in a brief sentence that Nixon actually volunteered to serve; he could have been excused on the basis of his Quaker beliefs. Summers then attacks the fact that Nixon was according to sources far from the action and was never in any real danger. A war is a war wherever you happen to be and Summers remark is indicative of the manner in which he attempts to impeach Nixon's character at every turn.

The film Nixon by Oliver Stone feels a much more honest reflection of its subject. Yes, it deals with the dark side of Nixon and doesn't play down his trouble with drink and drugs nor his occasional irrationality. It also shows Nixon as a great statesmen, a charismatic leader and a man who ultimately succumbed to his personal demons. More than anything, Nixon's story is a tragedy and it is simply not good enough for Summers to suggest that Nixon was a rotten man through and through.

I am just glad that I only borrowed this book from the library and didn't actually buy it!

Sunday, October 29, 2006


I decided it was time to change the look of my blog, so hope regular readers like the new look. It seemed appropriate too what with the end of BST and the long nights now firmly drawn in to have a change. I do hate the fact that it gets dark so early now. It was barely five before it became almost as dark as it is now. Will not be nice tomorrow coming home from work. At least the compensation is that its lighter in the mornings.

Today, I've been busy working on an essay that I've got a deadline of Thursday to finish. It doesn't have to be with my tutor until Saturday but I'll need to finish it by Thursday to get in the post in time. I've made a good start although I always find writing essays or for that matter anything, a chore. Even this blog! Although normally the results are pleasing and worth the effort put in.

A few years ago I used to write a lot of Star Wars fan fiction. I did dabble a couple of times in writing non-SW fiction but I kind of got stuck in a rut with the former and found it difficult to write anything else. Some of those stories I look back on now with some embarrasment. They weren't awfully good, rather silly some of them. I often think now of starting writing again, probably not SW stuff though. Trouble is, I need a hook to get me started and that I find is the most difficult thing, whether its writing an essay, a piece of fiction or this blog. What is the subject and what is that killer first sentence that immediately grabs the reader's attention?

Currently or should I say intermittently, I am reading a book written by a colleague at work. Its an unpublished first novel and although it needs some work to bring it to standard, I think its a commendable effort. What is surprising is just how much shows through of the person who wrote it. That is an unconcious thing whenever you write - that some of you comes through onto the page. Even if you try not to say anything much, which as Jamie will now, I try very hard not too, its all there. Its as much the things you don't write as the things that you do, that tell you everything about the writer. The main problem I have with this book though is that I don't much care for the characters. They are unengaging and that is where it fails. There is some rich back story to it but I just don't believe that it relates to these people. Their present day selves and actions do not seem to be connected to their history and if nothing else we are all products of our past.

There were only a couple of times when writing SW-fiction that I feel I nailed the art of a writer and that was when I was writing from personal experience. Not directly relating my life onto the page but engaging with parts of it; thoughts, emotions and fears. I found it easier to write when I engaged with myself like that but also far too revealing! I guess my problem is that I am a coward. I am afraid of sharing what really matters in a direct way, instead making oblique comments and probably leaving a doubt as to whether I am being serious. A bit like that last sentence really!

Anyways, tomorrow I'll be back working on the essay hoping to polish off a couple of drafts. If it goes well I should have it finished by Tuesday night and that leaves me a couple of nights to make some last revisions and improvements before I send it off.

The Monster is Loose

The Monster is Loose is both the title track and subtitle to MeatLoaf's superb new album, Bat out of Hell III. I've hardly stopped listening to the tracks since I bought it yesterday. This is classic MeatLoaf - heavy rock, powerful ballads and completely over the top in every sense. Its the distinctiveness of his music that has always drawn me to MeatLoaf. These aren't puerile love songs - these are mini-opera's of the agony of love, sex, violence and death. Bat out of Hell III is certainly darker than the previous two Bat albums and I absolutely love it.

My favourite track is Seize the Night, which includes a chorus partly sung in Latin by a boy soprano, some rather salty lyrics and massively over the top orchestrations. Then there are the more personal tracks like Cry Over Me, What About Love and It's All Coming Back to Me Now, plus the loud and heavy rock of The Monster is Loose and In the Land of the Pig, The Butcher is King. Whatever he sings MeatLoaf always invests everything into it and draws me into these songs. Yeah, they're completely over-done and histrionic but that's the great part of the appeal to me of his music. Everything is over-stated, loud and emotional to a point where it is impossible not to be sucked in and swept away with it.

MeatLoaf is about the only musical choice I've made that hasn't been influenced by my parents. Most of the music I like now is what I heard my dad playing on the old record player back home. Its the music that I grew up with. However, there was never any MeatLoaf played in the house! Bat out of Hell was where it all started and in the early 90s I remember I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That) was played on the radio all the time and got me hooked. I think the first Bat out of Hell album was the first MeatLoaf album I got and since then I've purchased almost all the others plus a couple of DVD's.

Although most of MeatLoaf's albums have been collaborations with Jim Steinman, one of my personal favourites is Welcome to the Neighbourhood released in 1995, which was notable for its absence of any Steinman written tracks. This was a much more reflective and sombre album than what would be expected from MeatLoaf. The album seemed very much about loss, betrayal and unrequited love. My particular favourites are Original Sin, Left in the Dark, Martha and Where Angels Sing. Another thing that strikes me about MeatLoaf's music is that the lyrics are often memorable and easily quotable. They have meaning and often I find the words to be personally affecting. This is why Welcome to the Neighbourhood sticks with me because I understand something of what its like to know the pain of unrequited love.

Of a completely different style, I got a bargain CD compilation of Nina Simone last week. Now this is a choice that was definitely influenced by my dad who always seemed to be playing her songs. I'd not really been that keen when I was a kid and to be honest until I read an article about Simone's career and music earlier this year, I'd pretty much forgotten about her music. This CD was something of a tentative toe in the water. The only track that I instantly recognised was My Baby Just Cares for Me which was used in the film Shallow Grave. What struck me almost immediately is the variations of styles and influences in Simone's music; blues, jazz and classical amongst others. Some of the songs are angry declarations such as Mississippi Goddam and Don't Smoke in Bed, while tracks like He Needs Me, show a much more fragile side to Simone. I was impressed especially by the main section of the album of live performances. The last few tracks from the latter years of Simone's career just didn't seem right. They felt too polished and lacked the vitality, rawness and energy of her earlier work. However it has got me interested in discovering more of Simone's work,

Friday, October 27, 2006

A question of belief?

I was reading a discussion on the subject of religion and specifically whether Britain should become a secular society earlier today on the BBC web site. I mentioned some of the comments to a colleague who gave the rather glib reply, 'religion is the root of all evil' to which I retorted, 'No. Religion is used as the root of all evil.' The distinction in my mind is that religion in itself is not evil, it is the way it has been used and twisted (by the misguided) in the pursuit of self-interest that has led to evil.

If you'd asked me the same question maybe five years ago, I may well have given an equally similar or glib response. I would probably have said yes to the idea that Britain should become a secular society. Now, my views I think are somewhat more moderated and open to religion although I do not believe myself to have any deep religious beliefs. So what's changed?

I am not sure to be honest. I haven't had any major experiences in my life that have changed my view of the world. There has been no revelation where I have miraculously 'seen the light.' I do not even consider the existence of God to be plausible yet I find it hard to deny. I've always seen myself more as a 'realist' and a believer that everything can be explained by science and that one day when we have the mental capability, we will unravel the meaning of life. However I have found that a belief in science alone cannot deliver all the answers. Moreover it cannot always provide the reassurance or comfort that I feel I need.

My religiosity is limited though. I don't pray and I have never owned a Bible and have never read it in any great detail or studied its meaning. I don't belong or follow any particular religion or church nor do I attend the latter that often.

What I do find in my limited encounters with religion and in particular Christianity, is spiritual strength and succour. I also find that religion defines a morality that I feel is sadly lacking from modern society. Although I consider my beliefs to be generally liberal, I do have a strong sense of what is morally right and wrong and I find that religion informs those choices. For example, I am completely opposed to abortion because I believe in the sanctity of life and that we do not have the right to make decisions about life and death, especially when it concerns a life so defenseless as the unborn. Often, this particular deeply held view has brought me into an internal conflict with my strong sense of compassion. Is it right, for example, to allow a baby to be born that will be afflicted with a serious and debilitating physical or mental impairment with little or no quality of life? Or a baby born to a mother who was raped? Religion doesn't offer me an answer to these questions. It doesn't tell me what is the right or the wrong choice but my beliefs give me strength and courage to stand by the decision I would make.

Mostly, I think that religion for me is a source of moral strength. It is not about being right and righteously judging others but finding direction and capacity to deal with such difficult issues.

There have been moments in my life when I have felt lost and confused and it is in those times particularly, whether it be a hymn, a passage from the Bible or a prayer, that I have found not necessarily the answer but a way forward. Because religion like science doesn't have all the answers. Sometimes, the only answers we can find are inadequate and feeble anyway. At least to have some beliefs and a strong sense of moral direction can help finding the way again that much easier.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Classical music, neconservatism and some politics

Currently I am listening to an EMI Classics 'Great Recordings of the Century' of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 Resurrection. I first heard this piece, as you might recall as this years Proms. This is claimed to be one of the finest recordings of this particular work with conductor Otto Klemperor, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus and two soloists. The recording dates from 1963 and was remastered in 2000. It sounds superb.

With the purchase of this CD I am getting nearer to completion of the complete cycle of Mahler's symphonies. I like Mahler's symphonies because they are extraordinary pieces of music. Ressurrection for example, while mostly concerned with death and thus necessarily dark and melancholic, ends on a glorious and unrestrained climax. Throughout it has moments of ebullience and the large orchestra and chorus required for this piece is given full voice. It is the drama of Mahler's symphonies I love and the fact that in each it feels as if he has literally poured his heart into them. They're tortured, rousing and occasionally disturbing pieces of extraordinary power.

Yesterday I started reading Francis Fukuyama's After the Neocons, which I borrowed from the library last week. Fukuyama is someone whose writing I am only vaguely acquainted with. His book, The End of History, was quoted from and mentioned a few times during my OU course on the United States. In After the Neocons, Fukuyama introduces the neoconservative movement, essentially one of four distinctive schools of thought in America on foreign policy. Neoconservatism has its roots in the 1940s/1950s, being founded by American-Jewish intellectuals and coming to particular prominence in the Cold War. It emphasises the role of America as a benign empire and the moral purpose of American power, thus largely dismissing the usefulness of multilateral and the institutions of international governance such as the United Nations. I have some sympathy with this view and despite all the cynical and negative hyperbole to the contrary, I sincerely believe that a benign American empire is something to be welcomed, not feared.

Interestingly Fukuyama makes it quite clear from the start that while he did consider himself a neoconservative, he has become disillusioned, arguing that neoconservatism has become hijacked by the Bush administration and had its meaning and purpose usurped. But it isn't a rant about the Bush administration or the doctrine of pre-emptive war. Rather Fukuyama argues why the Bush Doctrine is misguided and seeks to offer an alternative set of principles to guide American foreign policy. I haven't as yet got to the 'meat' of this book but it is surprisingly interesting and engaging. I find the arguments logical and relatively clear to follow although some understanding of politics and in particular American identity, is necessary to get the full thrust of Fukuyama's message.

Finally, I wanted to comment on something, which was being discussed over a pint in the pub last Sunday; public transport. This is where the 'some politics' part comes in! Okay, so this may not seem like the most dynamic subject to be talking about on a Sunday lunchtime but it is an issue that I am passionate about and has a direct bearing on all of us, in some way or another.

I think the basic feeling was that people think public transport in the UK generally is pretty useless, of poor quality and simply not inviting enough, especially if you have access to your own car. The consensus is that we all want better public transport. However, its in the detail that generally there is much disagreement. Just how good does public transport have to be before it becomes a real alternative to the private car? And who pays for it?

One form of public transport that all most everybody uses is the railway. A billion passenger journeys were made on UK railways last year, the highest number since the mid-1960s on a considerably reduced network. There is considerable negativity and cynicism about the railways in this country. After all we have just entered the leaf fall season and no matter how hard the operators try to explain just how serious a problem this is, nobody cares to listen. It is easier to make silly jokes about 'leaves on the line.' What amazes is me is that everybody seems to assume that this is a recent phenomena when in fact it has existed since the steam age!

Sometimes the industry itself manages to score some remarkable own-goals and remains very poor at effective self-promotion. Moreover I think the railways suffer from too much political interference with the strategic direction being set by a Department for Transport that hardly seems to understand what the railway is, much less how to run it.

Railways cost a lot of money too, massive sums of money. Why? Because for the most part our trains, although many of them are new, run on infrastructure that dates from the Victorian age. Presently, Network Rail, the infrastructure provider is embarking on a massive programme of improvements, on which it will spend £3 billion this year alone. This is everything from the West Coast Mainline upgrade,signalingg improvements, laying new track, improving stations, civil engineering and freight enhancements.

Major projects in the pipeline include rebuilds of New Street station in Birmingham, London's Waterloo, Victoria and Kings Cross stations. Desperately in need of a rebuild is Clapham Junction although the enormous costs and disruption that such a project would cause is likely to see a stop-gap approach taken.

It is this reticence to spend the really huge sums of money and make ambitious projects work, which is where the rail industry lacks. The West Coast Mainline has perhaps been the best example of how not to do it, a project that hasspiraledd out of control in terms of costs and delivery. However, the Channel Tunnel rail link, which will fully open next year along with St Pancras International is an example of what can be done with political will, adequate funding and strong project management, delivering on time and on budget.

Railways are an expensive business and I think we should get used to that. If we want a first class railway that will be the envy of our European neighbours, we need to invest and invest heavily. We need politicians that are willing to put their support behind ambitious schemes like a new North-South high speed line between Scotland and London. We need most of all vision and I think that is sorely lacking.

The simple problem to me seems that it is easier to sell to someone a new road than it is a new railway. Railways are expensive to build and maintain and they do not attract the political support that roads do. Yet, railways deliver massive benefits in the long term in respect of benefits to the environment, cutting pollution and using much less space than roads as well as providing economic benefits and easing congestion on the road network.

Most of all I think we need a party with the political will and courage to support the railways. The current government doesn't and certainly the last Conservative government didn't. It needs a change of attitude that must come from the government but must also carry with it public will as well, which is where the rail industry needs to work harder.

Monday, October 23, 2006

What friends are for

I had a lovely weekend at the wedding of two of my dear friends. Its been a long time since I've been so a wedding ceremony and I had forgotten just how solemn the promise is that two people make to each other when they are joined in marriage. It got me thinking that friendship is also a solemn promise although it may not share much in common with marriage. What is true of both, is that as you choose your wife or husband, you choose your friends and perhaps more importantly they choose you. In this way I believe that with friends you can often have a closer relationship than with your own family, after all you do not choose your brother, sister, mother, father, aunts, uncles, cousins etc. They are a group of people thrust upon you who you may or may not love dearly. Friends though occupy a unique place, they are in your life because you want them to be.

Friends to me should be your fiercest critic and strongest ally. They should stand by you when you fall and be with you when you achieve your dreams. They do not judge nor take sides. Most of all they offer succor and hope when it seems there is none.

My group of friends are very important to me. They are all of those things mentioned and more. They are the people that I most want to be with and hope to share at least some of the ups and downs of my life with. Above all else, friends are important because they are the people you can trust. Like a marriage, trust is the cornerstone of a long-lasting mutually enhancing friendship. Without trust, there is no relationship whether it be friendship or marriage. I trust my friends implicitly. They are people I feel I can share my problems, my fears, my hopes and my dreams with. I hope that they feel the same with me.

I have in the past had a rather negative view of friendship, often losing friends that seemed very dear to me for very petty or inconsequential reasons. Sometimes, it has simply been through moving on and either not bothering or not caring to keep in touch. Consequently I have no friends from school or college who I maintain any contact with. It didn't seem to matter at the time but as I've got older, I've come to realise that everyone who has been involved in your life as a friend, never really leaves you. I sometimes think about them and wonder where they might be now and selfishly consider whether they ever remember me. Did I leave any mark in their life like they did in mine?

This blog, although it is largely motivated by selfish reasons, is for my friends. This is the place where I can share and say things that either would be inappropriate or difficult for me to say in person. The reason for my reticence is not because I doubt my friends rather it is that I doubt myself. I hope that I am never dishonest but I know that sometimes for me saying the things that really matter is impossible and its only in words not spoken that I can find my voice.