Thursday, August 31, 2006

All by myself

Most people I meet seem to assume that because I live on my own I must be lonely. There is though, and this what most people don't realise, a huge difference between being alone and being lonely. They are two completely different states of being I think.

Loneliness to me is being unable to be at peace with yourself, unable to reconcile your conscience or unable to share your feelings, fears, anxieties and pleasures with someone else. Living alone on the other hand is a choice, however much I may sometimes feel that it isn't. I choose to live alone. I don't have too but I like my life this way. I like the independence and freedom that comes from being able to do my own thing.

Naturally, even when you live on your own, you still live by rules and routines, largely self-imposed. For example, I always go to bed regularly around 11pm each night. I don't have too but its my little routine. I always sit at the table to have dinner in the same chair, when I have a choice. I always get out of bed the same side each morning, although the latter has more to do with superstition and habit than anything! Perhaps it is habit then rather than routine that imposes itself upon me even though I could choose to do things differently. But routine or habit, whatever it is, is comforting. Even when you live on your own, it is nice to feel that there is structure in the day or I find it so. I like the reassurance that some things are always the same.

I think maybe deep down and I am loathe to admit it that I have a controlling side to my personality. I like order, I like things to be just so. Or is that some sort of obsessive compulsive thing? It may not appear that there is much order in my flat most of the time as it normally looks a tip. However, there is a discernible order to me. I know where everything is. I arrange things in particular ways - my books are all grouped according to subject and then alphabetically by author. I am careful to ensure my favourite authors have a prominent position on my bookshelf. My CD collection is ordered by type of music and artist and my DVD collection is in a strict alphabetical order. I get quite annoyed when I find something is not back in its proper place.

A more pertinent example of my craving for order and the 'just so' is perhaps exhibited at work. I loathe for example the way some of my colleagues write letters. I have a particular style and manner of laying out a letter that I stick to religiously. If I have to proof-read somebody else's letter I find myself mentally tutting at their style, the language and the presentation. I like things to be just so. I happen to think my way is best.

I guess a lot of this claim for order comes from the fact that I feel more comfortable in structured situations, where there is a clear hierarchy and everyone has a role to play. Perhaps because of this I always feel more comfortable in the work environment than I do in social situations. Work is controlled, there is a distinct line of control and there are rules and regulations that have to be adhered too. I may not like what I do or sometimes the people I work with but I can cope with it (mostly) because there is a structure to it.

Maybe all this claim for order and structure is why I live alone and find it so difficult to share with almost anybody else. In my more optimistic moods I see myself as an open book but in reality, the real me is hidden most of the time. I can become very lonely in those moments. Without structure I find it difficult to express myself, most tellingly in social situations. I don't know what my place or role is. What are the rules? There isn't a clear hierarchy. I prefer to sit back, let everyone else interact and only join in (albeit rarely) when I feel I might have something interesting or productive to say. Sometimes I can talk lucidly for hours and feel comfortable in the company I keep but this is only with people that I have known well or for a long time. Even then, I am not really myself. I always hold something back. Fear I think must play a part in this. But fear is a foolish man's obsession. I have nothing really to be fearful of.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Capital 'A' anorak

Thank you Ian Marchant for the wonderful book, Parallel Lines. Or it could be subtitled 'Everything you wanted to know about trainspotting but were afraid to ask.' Marchant takes us on a fabulous journey, which I haven't quite finished yet, to explain the cult of trainspotting. He makes a sensible starting point arguing that really there are two railways. The first is the one that is universally derided as being crap. The railway of rubbish sandwiches, tardy trains, rude staff and incomprehensible timetables. The other, is the railway of trainspotters and enthusiasts like myself, the railway of romance and nostalgia.

To prove that this 'second' railway really does exist, Marchant decides to become a line 'basher,' a peculiar breed of enthusiast whose aim is to travel every railway line in Britain and thus completely colour all those dull black lines in their rail atlas. While he may often find the first railway, there are hints of the second all around - you just have to be attuned to it, that's all! He does try hard and along the way regales the reader with some fabulous anecdotes including the opening story of being chatted up by a couple of working girls while admiring the fabulous gothic facade of St Pancras station. There are also copious opportunities for lewd, drunken and drug-filled diversions along the way as Marchant takes himself on a idiosyncratic tour of the railway of Britain including a fantastically circuitous route from London to Lancaster via Leeds, the Settle & Carlisle and Barrow-in-Furness!

This is trainspotting for the uninitiated. However what Marchant never does is make fun of the trainspotters themselves, albeit for references to their sandwiches wrapped in grease-proof paper. He does dispel some of the myths about railways and its attendant enthusiasts though. Contrary to popular belief, they are not all spotted, bespectacled youths of the male gender. As Marchant discovers, trains have a fascination for women too and the preservation movement welcomes and indeed does employ volunteers from all walks of life. Sadly perhaps, he never quite gets to grips with the appeal of noting engine numbers, although he confesses a weakness for the later, when boarding the Caledonian Sleeper from Euston.

Like me, Marchant's interest in the railways goes beyond the locomotives and the rails they run on. His equally fascinated by the social history of the railways, the way they have shaped our society and the magnificent legacy they have left us, particularly in terms of architectural and engineering feats. He holds back none of his bile for Beeching and the swingeing axe the man from ICI wielded in the 1960s, cutting off a third of the rail network for good. Neither does Marchant have time for politicians who continue to interfere in an excessive way with the railways.

The railways are endlessly fascinating and as Marchant observes 'All human life passes through the station. What's not to be fascinated by?' I could not agree more. Railways are more than just the trains, the buildings and the permanent way and all its attendant infrastructure, it is about the people, simultaneously its single greatest asset and weakness.

Is there truly then a romantic and nostalgic railway? I think there is and I feel that Marchant discovers it in this book. The railways may appear frustratingly complicated to the casual traveler with the complex ticketing arrangements and difficult to understand timetables, or just as a functional means of travel from A to B, but to me they are so much more than that.

On Saturday, for example, I went to Carlisle. Two main reasons - first to see the city and its cathedral (I have a weakness for cathedrals) and secondly (and more pertinently) to say that I've been to Carlisle Citadel station. While the cathedral was something of a disappointment, the station was not. The main frontage was designed by Sir William Tite, who had two years earlier designed the Bank of England, and it is one of the most impressive entrances to a station in the country. Inside, the train shed is magnificent. Although it may now only hum to the sound of multiple units, it is not difficult to imagine how impressive it would have been in the age of steam, with the express locos of the LMS hauling their heavy trains under the fine roof. There is some link to the past, with a display celebrating 150 years of Citadel station and the 'City of Carlisle' nameplate adorning the wall near the entrance. This is a place that is filled with nostalgia and romance for an age long past.

On the way back, as the train passed through Crewe, the spiritual home of the train enthusiast, there is more evidence of that nostalgia. At the Railway Age, there is the last remaining set of the Advanced Passenger Train, that fine attempt at a state of the art tilting train that ended in failure for British Rail in the early 1980s. This was the future that was to usher in what was called 'The Age of the Train.' South of Crewe is line upon line of withdrawn coaches and locos; most will be heading for the cutters torch, others will see new life, perhaps in preservation or even less likely in another country. It says a lot about our railways and our society when perfectly usable stock is left to rot while the trains that replaced them hurry their passengers to and from their destinations. I have to agree there isn't much romance or nostalgia to be had traveling on a Pendolino. Will I be looking back in 30-40 years when the Pendolinos are being withdrawn from service and have the same feelings of nostalgia and romance that I have now about the railways. Somehow I doubt it.

First Night at the Proms

Until November last year I had never been to the Royal Albert Hall; since, I have been there 4 times, with fifth and sixth concerts at this magnificent venue already to come before the end of September. Last Thursday was also my first attendance at the BBC Proms - I am going again next week and I'll probably do more concerts next year.

I've always enjoyed classical music although in the last few years I've developed a taste for it. I am by no means an expert or have any great passions about what should and should not constitute classical music. I am quite happy for it to encompass film scores for example and my tastes anyway lie with the more contemporary stuff. In addition my love of all things American (well most things anyway!), sparked my desire to discover more of Samuel Barber's music, one of the reasons I selected last Thursday's concert.

Barber will always be known for his searing Adagio for Strings and until about 2 years ago this was the total of my experience of his work. Then I discovered that Naxos were doing a fabulous collection of Barber's orchestral works, all for the bargain price of £5.99 per CD.

The man himself remains very much an enigma to me. I've only pieces of his life to go on. Apart from knowing he was an American and in my view one of the greatest American composers of his generation, the only other pieces I've gleaned about this man whose music so enchants and fascinates me, is that he washomosexuall and in later life struggling with the twin demons of drink and depression. It was only from Thursday's concert programme that I learnt how he died - cancer struck him down at the relatively young age of 70 in 1981. His music lives on though.

Barber said of his compositions that his style was that he had no style. Although I don't really get all that academic discussion of music and the arguments that he wrote in a neo-romantiscist style, what is clear is that Barber's music was quite different. Everyone will know the famous Adagio for Strings but it is very untypical of Barber's other work and doesn't really do justice to the fabulous orchestral music he produced. Thursday's concert featured the first of Barber's three Essays for Orchestra. The First Essay I find a dark and disturbing piece, imbued with fear and trembling anxiety. This is probably one of my favourite, if not favourite, pieces by Barber. I like the emotion there is in this piece and the fact that the ending feels unresolved and solemn. It is so unlike the Adagio yet it evokes in me that same feeling of despondency and sadness.

The second half of the Prom featured music by Mahler and namely the Fifth Symphony. Shamefully the reputation of this piece for me (before Thursday) rested on the fourth movement - the Adagietto. This was unforgettably used in the film Death in Venice. Although written as a love song to Mahler's wife, Alma, the Adagietto has for me always summed up agonising loss and unendinglonelinesss. It is in my view more beautiful than the aforementioned Adagio by Barber, scored simply for strings and harp, yet able to summon searing sadness and forever that image of the boat floating languidly across the lagoon in Venice...

The rest of the Fifth Symphony as the programme notes describe it, is convulsed with terror and energy. Mahler's life seemed to be shrouded in death which appears to have influenced this work and its sometimes sinister turns. It was a thrilling performance though, from the heights of joy and energetic playing to the deep loneliness of the Adagietto before a spectacularly robust and thrilling final movement.

By the end of this concert I had tears in my eyes, a huge smile on my face and a feeling of immense satisfaction at having heard such wonderful music played so beautifully. This is the attraction of classical music to me; the way it can move the heart like no other music I know.

Where have I been?

It has been extremely hectic the last five days... Last Thursday I was at the BBC Proms in London, Saturday I was in Carlisle, and the last few days I've been in Pompey. Trouble with coming back home is there is always so much to do. No matter how organised I am before I go away, there always seems to be a pile of things to deal with - e-mails to respond to, messages to reply, household chores that never seem to be done etc.

Ah well, more from me later.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Some of my favourite things

Whenever I am asked to pick my favourite of anything, whether it be book, film, music, place, smell or whatever, I find it extremely hard to narrow down to just one thing or in the case of books, film and music even a handful. I hate the thought of having to declare one item above all else as being the most important, influential or best. It seems so unfair. And I find my tastes change over time, even from week to week sometimes. So although on my profile here I have listed my favourite films, books and music, it is by no means set in stone. There will be changes. After all there are books that I am yet to read, music I am yet to here and films I am yet to see that may connect with me like none that have gone before and maybe they will become my favourites.

For now though, I've listed a clutch of films, which I personally regard as my favourites and that no matter how many times I watch them, I never tire of seeing again.

The most recent film on my list is Brokeback Mountain, only released this year. This is a good example of why I find it hard to choose a favourite film. Until I'd seen Brokeback Mountain, I might have chosen Magnolia or Nixon as my absolute favourite. Not any more. Brokeback Mountain was one of those rare experiences in my life where a film has connected with me on a deeper level, not just as superficial entertainment. And if I am honest that is why all the films on my favourite list are there - they're each saying something personal to me.

At the heart of all the films I have chosen are deeply conflicted characters. You may scoff at that idea in regards to the Star Wars Saga. However, without going into all the reasons why I believe this, for me the most important point of the films is Anakin's rise, fall and eventual redemption. Here is a deeply tragic character, who ends up allowing hate and darkness consume him, being damned to live within the walking casket of Vader by making all the wrong choices for the right reasons.

Brokeback Mountain was not, as many people IMO wrongly assume, simply about two gay cowboys. Of course their sexuality was core to the film but moreover it was about the fact that we cannot choose who to love and the consequences that we face by living a lie. The characters were caught in this awful compromise that whatever their choice they risked losing everyone and destroying their own happiness together or the happiness of those that loved them. This is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the relationship between Ennis and Alma.

Ennis is unable to accept his own homosexuality and tries to keep it secret. Even when Alma sees the truth of Ennis' and Jack's bond she is unable to confront him. The secret remains, destroying the love between them and tearing Alma apart. Yet the alternative does not appear any more desirable. Jack, who is clearly more open and comfortable about his sexuality, we see later in the film being brutally beaten to death by those that cannot accept his identity.

For both Jack and Ennis, Brokeback Mountain offers no easy answers. Their love, it seems, was doomed from the start. It existed in only one perfect moment in the summer of 1963. And all because they were unable to choose who they loved.

That is what connected with me about this film. The fact that in our most fundamental desires, we are unable to choose.

The final film I want to mention is Nixon. Hopkins portrayal in the title role is a revelation. Physically he does not bear a striking relation to Nixon but he has the mannerisms and the speech closely matched. Nixon is a film about a man who, as it often remarks, almost touched greatness yet allowed his personal demons to destroy him. However cynical you maybe about the Nixon era it is undeniable that he left an important and lasting legacy, changing the face of the Presidency and the role of America in the wider world. Nixon may have been vilified but I think this film would change most people's opinion of this hugely influential if ultimately self-destructive man. The latter part is what touches me, how someone who could do much for good, is guided to destroy themselves. We all have that failing I believe.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Happy Days!

I woke this morning with a real happy feeling about the day. I am not often like this on a Monday morning. Normally its a chore dragging myself from under the duvet to face the grey miserable start to another week. Not today though! Oh no, I was up and ready for anything that life could throw at me!

And it did...

Predictably for a Monday it was raining when I left home to start the 45-minute walk to work. Why does it always rain on a Monday? It seemed when I was at school, it would always rain on a Friday. And not just a little rain either but skin-soaking heaving rain. It was so hard that it was bouncing off the ground!

However nothing has dampened my mood today. Even the normal stresses of work haven't really got me down. I am not often like this.

I am happy because I am looking forward to some things later this week. Particularly going to the Proms on Thursday night and then spending a few days in Pompey at the weekend. That's enough to put a smile on my face. I always get nostalgic and slightly emotional when I think of going back to Portsmouth. I associate it with so many of the happy and important things in my life. That is not to say that I have been unhappy while I've lived in Milton Keynes, its just that the things that have defined me as a person, for better of worse, happened while I was in Pompey. And everytime I go back it is like reconnecting with a part of me that I left behind.

I am happy now. I feel a warm feeling of contentment, that everything is going to be alright. It may only be fleeting and maybe hopelessly optimistic, but I'll live in the moment for now. I am not often like this.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Is this what we now call 'entertainment'?

Against my better judgement I decided to watch the X-Factor last night. Normally I avoid all reality shows but I thought this is one that everyone is always talking about and the start of a new series, so worth giving it a try.

What I saw though was one of the nastiest and cruellest pieces of television in my life. It was like watching a car crash in slow motion, horribly unpleasant and cynically manipulative. The sole purpose of this show seems to be to invite the audience watching at home to laugh at the contestants and to be 'entertained' by seeing others being mercilessly stripped of their dignity. This is not entertainment in any sense of the word, its cruel and unfair. I think it says a lot about our society when watching a programme that is solely based on individuals being rude to each other is considered either acceptable or decent.

I imagine X-Factor has a huge following amongst young children and teenagers. What sort of message does it send to them? That it is acceptable to be rude and to disrespect entirely another person's feelings? To laugh and call others less fortunate than ourselves silly names?

The X-Factor felt like the 'judges' were elevated to the role of the bully with the audience being invited to join in, supporting their attacks on the defenseless. Having suffered at the hands of bullies when I was a kid, I know just what a horrible experience that is.

This really is a disgusting and devaluing piece of television. It has no moral centre and I am disappointed that our values have slipped to such a low point. Certainly I will never be watching this programme again.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

One week on

Well here I am one week on from starting this blog and I am so glad that I started! I've said a lot of things here that I wouldn't have said otherwise, not that I've revealed any startling secrets. But I have enjoyed the space to have my say and bang on about any old rubbish that is getting on my mind.

Thank you for everyone who has posted comments to my blogs and long may that continue. I like to hear what people think and have to say.

Anyhows, here's to another week and many more of blogging!

Excuse me while I get my anorak

Most people who are into trains (and yes, they are mainly men) are so inclined because either a/. They were fortunate enough to have grown up in the age of steam; b/. A member of their immediate family worked in the railways; or c/. They lived next to the railway line or used to commute to work/school regularly by train. In my case none of those apply. I've never lived particularly close to the railway, none of my immediate family have ever worked for BR or its successors and trips by train as a kid were more the exception than the norm. Perhaps it is because of the rarity that trains became so interesting to me.

Btw, I would like to say before I go any further that I curse anyone who uses that unfortunate moniker 'trainspotter.' To me it evokes an image of a friendless, bespectacled and spotty youth or an overweight middle-aged saddo, who spend all their free time standing at the ends of windswept and rain-lashed platforms noting down train numbers. That is certainly not what its about for me. After all what's the point of collecting train numbers? Once you've got them all, what do you do then? Its rather a redundant exercise in my opinion especially as there are any number of web sites, books or magazines, where you can get all that information anyway.

So how did it all start?

Can't remember exactly although I do remember my first 'trainspotters' book, which I got in the early eighties either as a birthday or Christmas present. It was a rather slim affair, with pictures and brief texts on all the different types of loco and multiple unit that could be seen on the railway network in Britain. It was probably around the same time that I got my first train set - a completely inauthentic Hornby representation of a GWR branch loco and 2 carriages. I loved that train set though, especially when my dad made a proper layout for me on a baseboard. It was many hours of fun driving my little loco and its carriages and wagons around an oval of track... Ah, those were the days!

My dad had an awesome model rail layout in the loft - I think it was there because it was the only part of the house that my mum wouldn't dare enter and I don't blame her, the access was directly over the stairs, so a terrifying drop if you misplaced your step on the ladder getting up there! Dad was always fantastic at making things and the buildings and attention to detail in his layout was so much more impressive than just model trains.

As a kid I was also a member of the RailRiders club. It was specifically aimed at children up to about 15 or 16 as a way of getting them interested in railways. I had this massive wall chart on my bedroom wall and the idea was you had to collect stickers from various museums, preserved railways and other attractions reached by rail from around the country. I never did very well with populating my wall chart as days out by train were very few and far between and normally to unimaginative places like Bognor, Southampton or Winchester.

One trip I do remember is my dad taking me and a mate from school to Swindon. We visited the Great Western Railway museum before spending a few hours on Swindon station watching the trains go by. I remember being fascinated watching the unloading of a mail train, something that you'd be very lucky to see on the rail network today.

A couple of times we made the trip to London by train and it is difficult to put into words as an adult just how awe inspiring it was to be on the concourse of Waterloo station under that quite magnificent train shed. Most of all what caught my attention was the noisy 'clackety-clack' of the destination boards as they scrolled down details of the next departures. Even now when I am at Waterloo, I stop and catch my breath. Next time, you're there, just take a few moments to drink in the impressiveness of the building around you, it is quite an amazing place.

My interest in railways is deeper than just watching trains, its about the history of railways, how they shaped Britain and the communities that grew up around the railways. It is a very rich source of social history. Also, unashamedly I just love old steam engines and traveling on preserved and heritage lines such as the Swanage Railways, Severn Valley Railway and Mid-Hants Railways. Its a chance to transport yourself back in time and enjoy the smell and sight of steam, which is endlessly enchanting.

Perhaps most of all and I feel silly saying this, a feeling of nostalgia and romance to it all. Hah! Much of the latter has sadly gone.

The railways are still interesting. I feel very fortunate for example to have seen some of the last Pendolino's being built for Virgin Trains, visited works and depots in the local area and having some insight into how the modern railway is operated. It is endlessly complex and fascinating even if some is beyond my understanding.

Its not an interest that I shout about although if anyone asks and they're willing to listen, I could bore them for hours! Most people will probably think it a strange pursuit and I doubt it will ever shrug off that association with anoraks. I am not bothered, it gives me a lot of pleasure and that is all that is important to me.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Portsmouth Memories

This wonderful picture (even if I do say so myself!) shows the Spinnaker Tower and entrance to Portsmouth Harbour. Its a view that is normally impossible as it was taken from inside HM Naval Base during the International Festival of the Sea in July 2005. This view epitomises what I miss about Portsmouth and being by the sea. Its the fact that any view of the coast, whether it be a sandy beach or a bustling port as here, has an inherent beauty all of its own. There is always something new to see by the coast. The sea itself is a constantly changing force of nature - sometimes like when this picture was taken it can look calm and inviting, other days it is ferocious and challenging.

Simple words though really cannot sum up what it means to be living by the sea. Whenever somebody asks me about it, I can't really put into words what it means. There is something engimatic and inherently wonderful about having grown up by the coast. After all, we had a beach at hand all summer, just a few minutes walk from home. I shudder at the thought of dipping my toe in the same water now when I see the amount of pollution! One of the best things though was in winter, when the seafront would be deserted (the tourists having escaped inland) and the waves would come crashing onto the beach or across the fortifications of Old Portsmouth. The awesome power of the sea can never be underestimated and at its most violent, it is most engaging.

Ah, I can almost taste the salty sea air now...

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

So many things to say

I seem to have hit a paralyzing writers block. So many things to say, ideas tripping over one another, so many thoughts wanting to come to life on the page but unable to form them in any sort of coherent or comprehensible order. I doubt I am making sense, just rambling endlessly, needlessly.

I am often like this. There seems so much to say and no way to begin.

I was going to talk about religion and my beliefs, then I couldn't get to what it was I was thinking. Where was I going with this idea? What had I meant to say?

Or perhaps I was thinking of my outburst last night? My anger and frustration that has become dissipated with the weariness of time.

Maybe even the rotten day I've had, how I will never understand why people cannot show each other basic civility and courtesy. What ever has happened to respecting people? Why do others seem to feel it is a acceptable to be rude when it is so unjustified?

It all appears a jumble now. Nothing makes much sense.

I wonder if I think too deeply sometimes. Can you over-analyse a situation? I think I do. I stop to ponder for too long, to dwell on my perceived shortcomings and failures of character. I will play over and over again in my mind a telephone conversation I had at work today knowing that what I said was right, yet seeking to justify it to myself, worried that I really have got it wrong and I'll be found out. But what then? Its not like I am a brain surgeon, peoples lives do not depend on my decisions. It is not life and death. And besides I know I was right.

Why do I have these terrible anxieties? It comes and goes. Weeks will go past and I will feel confident in myself and assured of my purpose. Then every so often, it crumbles and I feel the other me coming forth. The frightened, desperate and lonely me who can barely function. The one who sees myself as valueless and despairing. I don't like that version of me. That is my bad side, the needy, desperate and ugly me.

Then when I think of all the bad things I try to remember what I like in my life and how I would not be me if I changed any of it. I know I am far from perfect but for all those failings I am still me and most of the time I am that nicer version of myself. I can do it. I can be like that all the time, if only I could let go of my demons, those voices in my head that tell that I will never be truly happy, that I will never find love. Those demons that bring out that other me, that frightened, desperate and lonely me. The me I hate and wish would go away.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Count to ten...

I was just reading a friend's blog at another site and they were describing Buddhist teachings about 'living in the moment' and letting go of negative emotions. I think I have a lot to learn from that.

At this precise moment I am so angry. I've spent many hours working on something, which has effectively been undone by someone else in a stroke. Why are people so inconsiderate of other people's feelings? I don't want to deal with this now, so I'll save my frustration until tomorrow.

I do a lot of that - biting my tongue, not saying what I want to. Deliberately avoiding confrontation. It doesn't work - it just makes me more resentful and bitter.

There are moments when I feel myself on the edge of losing control and in a bad way. I don't like feeling that way. Sometimes though I feel as if I am constantly taken advantage of and my acquiescence (out of necessity to avoid confrontation) in many things is taken a signal for people to walk all over me. Its not fair, I do have feelings too.

Unfamous Places

The BBC News Magazine: is asking people to vote for their favourite unsung landmark in the UK. Amongst those making the final vote, are two places that personally I would choose - Didcot Power Station and the Radio Masts at Rugby.

You may think that neither sound like particularly notable or attractive landmarks however both have a certain interest. Didcot Power Station would probably, in most people's view, be one of the most ugly places in South Oxfordshire. However, seen from a distance, its huge cooling towers have an enigmatic beauty, especially as they rise so boldly from the gentle green fields around. They are about the only thing that distinguishes Didcot and while they may not for everyone be the most attractive symbol of a town, the cooling towers are at least dramatic and noteworthy.

The Radio Masts at Rugby have long fascinated me, well for as long as I've lived in this area. At first I thought it must be some giant radio telescope. Its use though is rather more down to Earth. As I understand it the Rugby Radio Masts broadcast the Greenwich Time Signal - that sequence of six 'pips' that signal the hour and half-hour that you hear on radio. Also, I read in a booklet on the installation that the time signal from Rugby is used to set the clocks on many railway stations throughout the UK.

Whenever I see the Rugby Radio Masts I know that I am never far from home. If returning from a long journey up north or the Midlands, the Radio Masts announce the fact that the next stop will be Milton Keynes. At night it looks quite attractive, with the red lights at the top of each mast illuminated as a warning to aircraft.

Both the Rugby Radio Masts and Didcot Power Station, if nothing else, are symbols of the places they represent and are such an indelible feature of the landscape that they always catch the eye. Long may they continue to serve as unfamous landmarks.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Okay, so this isn't easy...

I think I might just about have managed to publish a picture above showing me at the Devil's Arse in Derbyshire last May (2005). After almost 40 minutes of trying to do this, I hope it was worth it!

I hate Mondays

It's not entirely true that I hate Mondays. I only hate them when they fall on a working day like today especially when they dawn grey, overcast and generally miserable, as it did this morning.

A Monday is always a good day though whenever it falls on a Bank Holiday or Annual Leave. Then it doesn't seem so full of resignation or dullness; rather a bright beginning to a week of possibilities and perhaps adventures.

Last night I finished reading So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor. Its been a long time since a book has made me cry. It's only his second novel and already I am beginning to think that he will become one of our finest authors of a good many years. There is something instinctive and intuitive about his style, the way he understands people, the intimacy he shares with his characters and the reader and the sheer ordinariness of the lives his two novels tell. Yet beyond that ordinariness there is something quite extraordinary and exquisitely sad. On many levels I connect with McGregor's writing. It is almost like seeing the world as I see it through somebody's else's eyes. I feel an instant connection to his lyrical, almost poetic style and the way he conveys the awe and wonder of the ordinary whether it be the rhythm of the city or of falling rain.

Taking a completely different tack I've now started Imperial Overstretch: George W Bush and the Hubris of Empire. This is a blatant and savage attack on the American Empire and in particular the Bush Doctrine of unilateralism and pre-emptive action. I have a degree of sympathy with the points the authors make, especially the way America has so carelessly spent the goodwill of the international community in the run up to the Iraq War and beyond. It also makes an interesting analogy about the mask that America wears, which while I do not agree with the brutal terms the authors use, has some relevance to understanding modern day America. In essence they are pointing out that the way America reflects unto itself and the way it is perceived within America is completely different to the America that the rest of the world sees.

I will stick with this book. I may find myself shaking my head vigorously in disagreement but then I do like something that challenges my views.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The true meaning of terror

In 2004 I did an Open University course on the United States in the Twentieth Century. In my final essay I considered the proposition that the twentieth century was the American century and that since the United States has been in decline. Its era of economic, political and democratic hegemony was at an end. That was the argument that I tackled.

At the time I was fascinated by the effect that the 9/11 terrorist attacks had had on the United States and I went as far as to say that the result of that day was to invigorate the USA with a new 'manifest destiny.' That is to say, an ideological crusade, one as important and world-changing as America's original manifest destiny; namely to spread the virtues of its liberal democracy across the whole continent of North America.

This is some of what I said in that essay about America's new found crusade:

The end of the Cold War in 1990 brought America to the realisation of its 'manifest destiny'... Rather than losing purpose or direction, America has entered the new century with a new objective, to conquer terrorism. The opening years of the twenty first century has shown that America remains willing to flex its military muscle and continue to bring the enlightenment of its liberal democracy to the oppressed whether it is in Afghanistan or Iraq. As Francis Fukuyama comments we are now at the 'end of history' as there is only one system that will continue to dominate world politics, that of the liberal-democratic west. (Francis Fukuyama, 'The West has won, Guardian, 11 October 2001).

... the apogee of American power has not passed and indeed may still be in ascendancy. The events of September 2001 have reinvigorated America with a new manifest destiny as it wages a 'war without end' against terror. While its military strength remains unquestioned and undefeatable, there is evidence that its political and economic preponderance is under threat. However, as Francis Fukayama remarked post 9/11 we still remain at the end of history. The democratic liberalism of America is here to stay and will leave in history the twenty first century as the second American century.

And it is this democratic liberalism that poses the greatest threat to the security of the West. Is it no wonder that extremists within our own society and abroad seek to destroy the foundationcivilization Civilisation when they see what it has become. It is a decadent and immoral world we live in. One which seems to turn a blind eye to its own inherent injustices. Take for example the current situation in Lebanon where hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed while the West stands back and procrastinates, deliberately allowing Israel to perpetrate what would in other terms be seen as a form of terrorism.

It is understandable why America has not interceded. In Israel, America sees more than just an ally, its an ideological meeting of minds. Both countries are in their own sense 'promised lands.' As for Britain, well as recent events have demonstrated, her influence in the world is much depreciated. Britain's role on the international stage is negligible to what it once was, its power has been in decline since the end of World War Two. The only means by which Britain can show any strength is by following in the lead of the US.

What concerns me most though is the cynical manipulation of the current situation by the government and media. In Britain we have been used to terrorist attacks for more than 30 years - the Idevastatinga devestating campaign on the British mainland. So why do we view the new terrorist threat so differently?

I think largely that is the role of the government. I said in my 2004 remarks above that America has found in its 'war on terror' a new manifest destiny. The moral absolutism of this war - that America is 'good' and fighting the 'evil doers' is a simplistic but powerful idea to unite around. It creates a purpose for a nation that was adrift without purpose after the end of the Cold War. This war on terror is a new frontier.

Cynically it creates belief in government; that they are doing all they can to protect us from this insidious threat. We do not question then when some of our freedoms are taken away because the means justify the ends. We do not flinch when people are arrested and detained without charge. We do not question when an innocent man is shot dead because it was thought he might be a terrorist. By creating a climate of fear and mistrust, the government can present itself as our knight in shining armour, the saviour that will deliver us from this evil. On the contrary it creates an environment that breads terrorism.

I would not go so far as to say that we should fear our own government or that America is the single greatest threat to world peace, as some have said. However, I do feel we need to hold a mirror up to ourselves and our values and question whether it is by our actions that we incite those who are disengaged from our society to such desperate measures. It does not justify their actions but it may open some questions as to why.

A typical Sunday morning

My Sunday's always follow much the same pattern. Although its the only day of the week when I don't have to get up early, I am normally out of bed by 9am. I resent the fact that in my time I should waste it by laying in bed all day! The day starts with Classic FM, tuning into Sunday Morning Requests, one of my favourite radio shows of the week. This morning I heard two of my favourite classical pieces Mars from the Planets Suite by Holst and Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. The latter is just so quintessentially English, that much like Elgar's music it summons this noble and elegiac image of England.

Today I was going to be attacking the weeds in the garden although the rain has put an end to that idea. Although I only have a small garden it is hopelessly overgrown with weeds and the grass looks deader and more yellow every day. I really must do something about it. Hopefully the rain might revive the greenery a bit...

Instead, I've got some work to do on a web site I manage for one of the railway clubs that I belong too. I quite enjoy it but it is a lot of work at times and I've spent the last couple of months redesigning and rejuvenating the site I inherited. Its mostly been a labour of love as I have discovered so much more about building and maintaining web site and as railways are a big passion of mine, its not been a chore either.

Later I guess I should really find the effort to have a tidy up at home and make it look less like a bomb site!

Saturday, August 12, 2006

So many ways to begin

For someone, who by my own admission, always has a lot to say I have become suddenly reticent. That's not a good start for a blog... So, the hook is the title of the novel I am reading, which seems rather appropriate, as it is about new beginnings and starting again.

There isn't going to be a theme to my blog. Its just my random mutterings and opinions, some forthright, some ventured tentatively about anything and everything. Every now and again I might say something interesting although don't count on it! Even less often I am likely to say something thought provoking or deeply profund. The latter will, rest assured, be a very rare event. However, I do hope that what I have to say will stir up some emotion, controversy and possibly debate. I never claim to be right about anything, this is just my opinions, so feel free to take a different tack and point out where I've gone wrong - oh yes I welcome your comments.

As this is my first post, I guess I should start by saying a little about myself.

I am 30 years old, single and live in Milton Keynes, Bucks. I've lived here for the past 5 years, having moved with work from my beloved hometown of Portsmouth. I miss being by the sea every day although fortunately MK has enough distractions to keep me occupied most of the time. Milton Keynes is not a place solely of concrete cows and roundabouts as the unjustified jibes about the place may suggest.

Anyhows back to me.

I work in banking and have done for the last 12 years, ever since I left college. It wasn't a career I would have chosen for myself. I've never had a clear career ambition and so just took the first job I was offered. I'd also applied to work in a library and some other miscellaneous boring office jobs. Its okay what I do now, still a boring office job to most people I am sure, although it pays the bills and means I can live fairly comfortably.

One of my consuming passions is Star Wars. Before you hurriedly rush to find another blog, I promise I will keep my diatribes on the said saga to a minimum. I am a fan of sci-fi more generally and enjoy reading the likes of Arthur C Clarke, H G Wells, John Wyndham and Iain M Banks.

Films and DVD's eat up far too much of my disposable income and free time. I've listed some of my favourite films in my profile.

Anyhows, that's a little about me and what I like. Check my profile for more about me. Hopefully, in the next few days I may even have mastered how to upload a picture!