Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Reading Material

I've started a bit of an exploration of the classics of sci-fi and its great authors of the last century. I've always been a fan of Arthur C Clarke and H G Wells but my reading of sci-fi has mainly been limited to those two authors, some Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov and John Wyndham. Recently I decided I needed to broaden my reading and so have started Robert A Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. The cover to this book, which was written in the 1960s, blurts about how shocking and disturbing the story is and how it will change the way the reader looks at Western civilisation and culture. I've not experienced such a revelation as yet although the story is intriguing. It is set in the future (of course) and starts with the brief outline of a failed expedition to Mars. A later visit to the Red Planet finds the humanoid Valentine Michael Smith, who is in fact a Martian. So far, I've only got to the stages where he has been brought back to Earth and the government it seems have their own agenda, manipulating Smith for their own ends. It is as I say, intriguing and I am not quite sure at this stage where the story is going. Heinlein's writing though does put me in mind of Clarke and considering this novel was written in the early 60s it is strikingly prescient about the future.

Two other books that I have borrowed from the library today are Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Edritch by Philip K Dick. Two of Dick's works have been made into the films, Blade Runner and Minority Report. I am looking forward to reading these two as both authors I have not read before so it'll be interesting to discover their styles and ideas.

On a completel different note, I also borrowed The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon by Anthony Summers. Started reading the intro to this on the way home on the bus and it appears to promise a warts and all account of Nixon's tragic fall from office. Whenever I think of Nixon I am reminded of the film by Oliver Stone and the line from it spoken by Henry Kissinger about how Nixon came close and could have touched greatness, if only the people had loved him. I am badly paraphrasing here but those words always struck me as incredibly sad as are Nixon's own words to a portait of the late JFK towards the end of the film, when he says "When they look at you they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are." Nixon is a character that has long fascinated me and I am intrigued as to how he was so catastrophically undone by his personal demons. While Oliver Stone's film is a humane and perhaps generous account, I doubt that Anthony Summers book will have much sympathy for its subject.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Why are people so rude?

I was struck today by just how rude people are. Personally I believe that many of our current social ills such as anti-social behaviour in particular are the result of the priveliging of the individual rights over the rights of the community or if you like, the power of the 'I'. It seems that everyone these days and I mean this across genders, cultures and ages, is self-absorbed, self-obsessed, mean or just damn selfish in their attitude towards others. What has happened to our society such that it has become one where eveyone knows their rights but few know their responsibilities.

I believe the latter with a passion. Everyone knows what their rights are or what they believe their rights to be. The trouble is that so many people it seems to me exercise those rights without due consideration or concern to others. Rights do not mean that you can do what the hell you please. Your own personal privileges should be exercised with due consideration and respect to the rights of those around you. We seem to have forgotten that last part.

In particular I despair mostly when I consider young people today. I do consider myself to just fall within this bracket btw! So many are surly, ill-mannered and plain disrespectful that they do discredit to all young people. As an example, most young people it seems walk around with either ipods or MP3 headphones jammed in their ears or worse still those mobile phone earphone/microphone things, which immediately insulate them from what's around them, particularly other people. We seem to have got this down to an art as a society - the ability to shut out everyone else, to have our own space that we control, an invisible barrier through which none shall pass. A prime example of the same on the bus coming home tonight, with at least five people taking up a double seat when they only needed one. Sat there with their bags ready as an armed defense against any who sought the seat next to them, their faces either downcast or looking into the endless distance, that look of 'do you have to sit here?' scowling back at anyone who didn't get the obvious message of their body language. Worst still if you are the hapless person sat on the inside of a seat and need the other person to move in order to get out at your stop. Whatever happened to those simple and nice words, 'please' and 'thank you'? Why is it that whenever you ask someone to do something these days, which would not long ago have been considered a courtesy, it is now regarded as a monumental physical effort? Like getting up to allow the person on the seat next to you to get off the bus. Is it to much of a effort to stand for a moment and show the other person some due respect and courtesy?

Why do young people always have to shout when they are on their mobiles? The wonder of modern communications mean that you can talk normally and your voice will be carried imperceptibly half-way round the world! And why do people have to swear all the time? I don't per se mind bad language, provided its in context. But why every day to I have to have my ears berated by someone saying f***ing this or f***ing that. Whatever happened to that respect for other people?

Often if someone is following behind me, I will hold the door open for them. Rarely do I get a thanks. Am I here to hold the doors open for everybody else? Am I so unimportant that I do not deserve to be acknowledged for being there? What is so difficult about saying 'thank you' or 'thanks' or 'cheers' etc. They're simple words. They take a second to say. Yet what they mean is immense. They acknowledge the other person, they are the nicest compliment anyone will ever feel. It should feel good to say thank you and it makes the other person feel good too. It is mutually enriching. Damn it, its just courtesy!

Why do people always answer the 'phone that is ringing while you are stood in front of them. Could they not say, 'excuse me, can I just answer that?' or just let the 'phone ring? The fact that the ringing 'phone is privileged above the physical presence of someone else is another example of the rude and disrespectful society we have now. It seems ironic to me that technology that should bring us closer together like the 'phone is used in the arsenal of weapons to hold back interaction with other people.

These are just a few examples. However, they are illustrative of a deeper problem in my view. The reason why so many people are so disenfranchised from society today is because they don't interact with it. We have lost the art and pleasure of social intercourse. We can't it seems bring ourselves to even extend the commonest courtesy to our fellow man because that would mean that we would actually have to acknowledge them. If we don't acknowledge them, they are not like us. They're not as important, they're a lesser person. Its easier to shout at them, to hit them or just ignore them. We are not them. We interact with this society when we want something from it, when it can give us something we need.

This latter point I am making is I passionately believe the most serious fault with our current society and the reason why we have such problems with anti-social behaviour. We have become disconnected from each other, isolated and uncaring. It is a sad state of affairs but it certainly doesn't have to be like this. It can be a better place. Everyone needs to make the effort though.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


I have this nagging doubt that when things are going okay it is only a matter of time before it all goes pear-shaped. I was fine yesterday. Happy and had an enjoyable day. Even had some relatively good news from the doctor. My blood pressure it seems has returned to more normal levels and after explaining the side effects I've been having with the tablets, the doctor confirmed that I didn't have to take them anymore. A small victory admittedly and he was still going to write to my GP, who might suggest that I go back on the tablets. I really don't want to. I feel like I've made progress and I can keep my blood pressure to normal levels by watching what I eat and doing more exercise.

I wish I could say that I feel better as a result but I don't. I thought I did but then I had one of those awful moments this afternoon when I suddenly became very dizzy and felt like I was going to faint. The feeling of dizzines and mildly annoying headache hasn't gone - it comes and goes. I think partly it might be to do with my eyesight, which I've noted has got poorer recently. Not massively so but I do notice that I have difficulty reading things at a distance and even close up can sometimes mis-read words. I really should see the optician soon and I have been putting off. I don't like dealing with bad news and I don't want to wear glasses all the time. The option of having contact lenses is even more appallingly bad. I am not sure whether it has anything to do with these dizzy spells but I can't think what else it is. They come on so suddenly and unexpectedly, even if I am just sitting down and watching TV it can happen and at first it is quite awful although after a while I learn to just get on with things and try to forget how I am feeling.

Earlier today I spent some time devising myself an exercise plan for the next 4 weeks, setting myself little goals to achieve and setting out clearly what I need to do. I feel proud about doing it and leaving space on my plan to tick off when I've achieved my goals.

Unfortunately my exercise bike is currently out of action. Rather unhelpfully the left hand pedal has come unscrewed and do you think I can reattach it, hell no! I spent over an hour trying to fit it back on but it looks like the thread on the screw has worn away so don't know if I can reattach it. I will have another go later. This is what I mean about things going wrong just when you think they're okay. This and the return of the dizzy episode this afternoon.


The rest of the day has been a waste. I had so many ideas in my mind of what I wanted to get done, not least to finish the decorating in my bedroom and I've achieved none of them. I very easily become side-tracked and worse start obsessing over the little annoyances of the day.

Doesn't help that I start back at work tomorrow. No doubt there'll be a pile of crap waiting for me when I get in. Even had a phone call from my manager on Friday asking if I wanted to work overtime yesterday! What a f***ing liberty! I am still on holiday!

Oh dear, I just wish the ground would open up and swallow me at the moment. Or someone to just take away all my bad feelings.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Tempus fugit

Well my two weeks annual leave are almost at an end. How can a fortnight disappear so quickly while also feeling like I have achieved so little? I always feel guilty at the end of a holiday if I perceive that I haven't achieved anything. Although I should perhaps clarify what I mean by this. Basically I have this idea that I should aways be doing something - whether it be as I was last week setting up new furniture and painting or just catching up on paperwork and other odd jobs that need to be done. I never feel really comfortable just forsaking everything and saying, okay, I am going to have an afternoon or even a whole day to myself when I don't have to do anything. I can just crash out in front of the TV and watch a few DVD's, just be a real slob for a few hours. Funnily, I never have difficulty achieving this when visiting friends!

I am not a workaholic either. I enjoy my work, although not all the other crap and office politics that goes with it. However, I am not someone who turns into the office early every morning and leaves after everyone else. Oh no! Normally, I scrape in just before nine, will take an hour for lunch and be leaving again by 5 or as soon thereafter as possible. I hardly put in anymore than I am paid for. However when it comes to my own time its a different matter. That's the reason why I refuse to stay in bed past 9am, even on a weekend. Hell, this is my time and I am not going to waste it sleeping!

It is because I see 'my time' as being so precious that I always want it to be meaningful and utilised doing something which moves forward. I get a lot of satisfaction from getting a job done, even the simple, routine things. I feel if I have achieved something with my time, however modest, it is time well spent and I can reasonably not feel guilty about it. If I've just been slouching round the flat and not doing much, then I invariably feel guilty and then wonder what I could have done if I hadn't let the hours slip by. This doesn't help, as it merely feeds the guilt.

I guess all this comes back to something else, which I mentioned before in one of my blogs. My need for structure. To have goals and targets and to feel that things are being achieved. I like having routines and tasks to complete. It keeps me motivated and focused. Perhaps that's why I don't like days of doing nothing.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Sea etc.

I finished reading The Sea by John Banville yesterday. Its not a book that I engaged with easily and at the end I was left feeling slightly cheated, expecting it to have some heavy emotional impact but leaving me with nothing more than a disconcerting feeling. Maybe it was a book beyond my intellectual capability or I just didn't invest enough into it. The prose was certainly heavy going and Banville's convoluted style I found easy to get lost in and not find a way out. Not my best read of this year by a long margin. I've now picked up Iain Banks' Dead Air, which is a much more readable book by comparison to The Sea although admittedly it does not aspire to such high literary heights as Banville's work. Maybe this is more my niche. The solid, none too demanding novel. I often wonder if I lack anything cultured in my tastes. I think I am simple in my approach to books. I want to read something with a straight message, writing that engages easily and leaves no doubt as to its purpose and direction.

I count amongst my favourite authors Arthur C Clarke, Patricia Highsmith, Jon McGregor and Stephen King. They are all writers that I connect too in some way and whose work not only I understand but intuitively feel, if that is the right word. You'll notice too that all but Highsmith are male authors. Somehow, with the exception of Highsmith, I just can't bring myself to read books written by women. Completely daft I know and I am not sure why I have this disregard for female writers. After all they are surely as accomplished and skilled as their male counterparts and probably more so when it comes to understanding the human psyche and emotions.

This is quite profound. I've never thought about it before and I've just checked my bookshelves and yes, there are no books by female authors apart from Highsmith and one solitary entry from Annie Proulx - Brokeback Mountain. Does this say something profound about me? Does it point to a deep down mistrust of women writers or an inherent prejudice? I don't consciously feel either of these things.

Next time I am in a bookshop I am going to deliberately look for books by female authors. There must be others out there apart from Highsmith, whose writing will appeal to men and me specifically, isn't there?

A day out in the Marston Vale

Yesterday I enjoyed a day out in the Marston Vale Country Park and Millennium Forest, which lies approximately midway between Milton Keynes and Bedford and is easily accessible from the Bedford - Bletchley railway. This was an ideal day to indulge three of my passions - railways, local history and the great British countryside.

The Bedford to Bletchley line is all that remains of a once important 77-mile cross-country route between the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge. Services east of Bedford and west of Bletchley were axed at the end of 1967. A remarkably short-sighted view as the closure came at the same time as this area of North Buckinghamshire was designated for the new city of Milton Keynes. The closure was even more surprising as the line had survived the merciless axe of Dr Beeching, so notorious for cutting up Britian's rail network in the mid-60's. The remaining section therefore between Bedford and Bletchley runs for about 16 miles serving some isolated communities en route, one reason for this section of line's continued survival. It has been threatened with closure many times although its future currently looks much more promising with recent heavy investment in the infrastructure.

Bletchley station is a miserable place. Its former glories as an important junction and locomotive depot have long since gone. The current station was the result of a 1960s rebuild when the line was electrified. It has spartan facilities and a squat and unattractive entrance building. The Bedford services generally depart from Platform 6, which is a long way, especially when you're in a hurry as I was yesterday! The impressive looking Bletchley power box, which also came with electrification in the 1960s, will soon become obsolete as signalling is moved to a new control centre at Rugby, as will Bletchley Motive Power Depot (MPD), when all train maintenance moves to Northampton Kings Heath. By the start of next year there really will be very little left of railway interest in Bletchley.
Still striking is the 1960s built concrete flyover which bisects the West Coast Main Line to the south of the station. This used to carry the Bedford-Bletchley trains onto Oxford. The track bed is still in place from the Oxford end as far as Calvert and is regularly used by household waste trains to the landfill site at the latter. Currently the flyover is back in use after many years of dereliction although this is only for the purposes of reversing freight trains and locomotives. There is still hope that the line can be restored throughout to Oxford and the government has given its backing, although no money, to the proposal.

Moving on from Bletchley, the train passes the Bletchley MPD and through the back of the industrial and commercial estates of Bletchley before its first stop in Fenny Stratford. You'll be pleased to note that I am now going to talk about something other than railways!

A short walk from the station is this fabulous canal-side location. Unfortunately the weather wasn't too good when I took this picture although I think these cottages look particularly pretty. Its hard to believe that just beyond these cottages is an industrial estate! And not more than 15 minutes walk, the busy centre of Bletchley. The canal here is the Grand Union, which runs between London and Birmingham and is, I believe, navigable throughout. There used to be a port here, which attributed to the success and growth of Fenny Stratford before it was overtaken by its neighbour Bletchley with the arrival of the railway.

My first stop on my trip to the Marston Vale was Millbrook. Forgive me, I am going to talk about railways again! I did wonder whether anyone, on 'phoning National Rail Enquiries and speaking to their Indian call centre asking about train times, had been inadvertently diverted to the Millbrook near Southampton or vice versa. It would certainly be a long diversion from their intended destination! Millbrook station serves the village about a mile away although originally it was called Ampthill. The station buildings, which are now in private ownership, are typical of this end of the line. I believe the design has something to do with the Duke of Bedford, whose land the railway crossed. The building looks magnificent - why don't they build stations like this anymore?

The path to the Marston Vale is just behind me from where I took this photo. The walk starts by hugging close to the railway line and it is possible to follow the route to Stewartby, which I'll come to later.

The Marston Vale is a new community forest and from what I know, one of the Millennium Commission projects. Naturally it will take many years for the forest to mature and become, well, forest-like. However, it did offer a pleasent walk and there are many inviting paths leading off into various diversions.

This next view was taken from one of the viewing points across Stewartby Lake. I am not entirely certain of this but I believe this was part of the brick works, which were later flooded. Brick making was a major employer and important industry in this part of Bedfordshire. It also provided important freight traffic to the railway, which finally ceased in the 1980s.

The walk around the lake is very enjoyable. It is mostly flat with well laid out paths, although some of the direction markers are a little ambiguous to say the least. It would be difficult to get lost as dominating the scene are the imposing chimneys of Stewartby brick works, which I'll come to shortly.

The Forest Centre is ideally located and formed a natural break in my walk. There are all the facilities needed - gift shop, restaurant, exhibitions, toilets and a place to hire bikes for those who want to take the cycle track.

On the walk there are many of these attractively carved and decorated benches, which make a welcome respite for weary walkers like me! In all the complete trek around the whole Country Park and Forest is about 5 miles, I think I did about half that making my way from Millbrook to the Forest Centre then down round Stewartby Lake into Stewartby itself.

The village of Stewartby owes its existence to the brick making industry. Indeed the village was named after Malcolm Stewart, the chairman of the London Brick Company. The brick works still dominate the village and the picture below shows the fine chimneys, with their 'L', 'B' and 'C' lettering.

Stewartby station is like many of the stations on this line rather unusual in that it has staggered platforms either side of a level crossing. A busy road has to be crossed to get between the 'up' and 'down' platforms. Over the 'up' platform a conveyer servicing the brick works chugs away noisily. The sound of industry is heavy in the air around Stewartby.

However even a short walk away you come into the centre of a quintessentially English village. The centre is attractively laid out, with wide roads and pavements and a good spread of trees and grassed areas. It all looks rather nice and gentle. I doubt that many of the village's inhabitants work in the London Brick Company site. I get the impression that Stewartby today, like to many other villages, is the preserve of businessmen in their smart suits commuting to jobs in London. Opposite is a picture of the hall that stands in the centre of Stewartby, a rather fine and attractive building I think, which captures the essence of the village rather well.

After a walk around Stewartby, I rejoined the train for the remainder of the short journey to Bedford (Midland) and a couple of hours break there. Bedford is not a place that I would be likely to go to again. It seemed to me a very intimidating town; a tired and wearisome centre, a pit of a bus station and drunks and tramps shuffling along the pavements. Not to mention the large groups of youths that just seemed to be waiting to cause mischief. The place frankly had an air of decay and neglet, a pregnant promise of something ugly.

Back on the train at Bedford (Midland) for the full run back to Bletchley. The journey takes about 40 minutes, which is not quick by any means but it provides a vital community service linking many rural and isolated communities and taking their inhabitants to work, shopping and just out for the day. The future is bright for the line if the proposed extension to Oxford goes ahead although there is much more that could be done in the meantime to encourage its use for leisure opportunities. The Marston Vale is certainly well worth a visit and hopefully it won't be long before I make another visit.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Laserdiscs and other discoveries

The last two days I have spent painting, tidying up, making up new furniture and generally having a rather late spring clean. I just felt the need to declutter as I amass so much junk and am often so loath to get rid of anything. I've made some interesting discoveries along the way and found things that were half-forgotten. Probably the best find was my small collection of Laserdiscs, which date back to the late 1990s/early 2000s. I remember Derek selling me the idea of Laserdiscs at the time - I'd often walked past the huge racks of them in HMV, wondering what they were all about. Looking back they're rather impractical things - I think I can best describe them as over-sized CDs, about the size of a dinner plate. They of course were superseded by their much smaller and more versatile cousins, the DVD.

My favourite set of the collection is the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition discs. I think these cost be about £40-50 at the time. I would rather have had the original Laserdisc release although that came long before I had any inkling what such a thing was. That as it was, I still remember first watching the Star Wars films on the Laserdisc player, which I still have a - a rather nice Pioneer one - and being amazed by the quality of the picture and sound. Laserdisc, like DVD, were a step change from VHS in terms of quality. I seem to recall that my player could play both sides of the disc, where the film was so encoded, which saved having to get up and change discs, which was the case on some cheaper players. Even so, each of the Star Wars films came on two discs, while Jedi was on three! I guess this was the downfall of Laserdisc - its not very practical to have to get up midway through a film to change discs over and rather spoils the fun of lounging in a comfy chair, while the film plays through. Admittedly, some DVD films are over more than one disc, but in most cases, DVD's can easily fit a film and its extras on just one. Plus their other problem was size. They do take up a lot of room, even though they're not as fat as VHS, so not very practical for easy storage.

All this talk of Laserdiscs has tempted me to get my old player out, dust if off and have a look through some of the films I kept. I had probably about 30-40 at one time but sold most of them to a guy at work who was mad keen on the format although by then I think they were becoming obsolete as DVD arrived.

As well as my Laserdisc finds, I've been going through masses of Star Wars stuff, a lot of it complete rubbish that for some reason I have kept until now. For example, why have I kept all those Pepsi cans from the Episode I tie-in? They're of no practical use now and I believe from reading an article in Star Wars Magazine, of very little value. So anyway they've been thrown out. Happy to say though that I found a lot of my old Star Wars fan club stuff and Aliens Fan Club magazines and correspondence between me and the Club's President, who was a good friend at the time helping me out considerably with a web site, adverts and banners for my fledgling Star Wars fanzine. I even found a ticket to the Aliens Convention at the Shepperton Moat House in October 1999!

I've been collecting together the various articles and paper, mainly newspaper interviews and features that I kept around the releases of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. They're now much better organised in a folder as is some of my older Star Wars paper and advertising bits and pieces. I am amazed at just how much I have collected and purchased over the years. One day, if the opportunity ever arises, I would like to get to cataloguing my complete collection, to have some idea of just exactly how much I've got. Often, as today its a case of organising things from one storage crate to another, without really keeping a track of what's there. I think it would be lovely to share some of the things I've collected with my friends and fellow Star Wars fans. After all what's the point of a collection if nobody is going to see it?

Anyhows, off to sort out my laserdisc player now!

Monday, September 11, 2006

5 years on

I was listening to the radio this afternoon and there was a special programme commemorating the 9/11 attacks. There was a comment from a British woman who had lost her son in the attacks that I thought summed up some of my views on that terrible day. In particular what struck a chord was that her very personal suffering was so public because of the way her son had been killed. His death was in the public domain and she said that it was incredibly difficult having to see those pictures of the fateful attack on the World Trade Centre over and over again on the TV.

Fortunately I was not affected on a personal level by the 9/11 attacks, I had no friends or family that suffered directly as a result. However, I was at the time and remain to this day, deeply horrified by those pictures of the two planes striking the towers of the World Trade Centre. It is an image that I will remember to my dying day. At the time I said that I never wanted to see those images again and nothing has changed my view since. The whole event felt surreal and even looking back from the safe-distance of 5 years there is still a numbness about what happened. It felt on that afternoon so much like a Hollywood film yet it was reality of the worst possible kind. I think in some ways it was a cautionary tale for us all that we have become so desensitised to death and violence because we see it so often in films and TV, that when something on this scale happens, we still see it as a movie. The lines between reality and fiction became dangerously blurred on 9/11.

When I consider my own behaviour, I am somewhat disgusted. I remember being told about the attacks by a colleague at work and my first reaction was one of disbelief, that this was some cruel and mean joke. It soon became apparent that it was not a joke. I remember walking home from work, a sense of curious excitement and dread. I regret those feelings now. The shopping centre was almost deserted, except for huddles of people gathered around the window of Radio Rentals, which was showing on every TV screen in the shop the moment of impact as one of the planes hit the World Trade Centre Towers and then later one of the towers collapsing. I stood there for some minutes, transfixed and disbelieving. This was not real. It still doesn't feel real. Although terrorism has been a fact of life for many years, I had never seen anything on this scale, something so unimaginably terrifying.

As soon as I got home I called my parents. I think it was as much a need to be reassured that there was still sanity in this world and to hear the voice of someone familiar, as it was to discuss what had been happening. I don't remember the conversation now.

That evening was a strange and surreal one. I recall that there was blanket news coverage on the BBC, and the pictures of the devastating attacks that afternoon were played over and over again. Perhaps consciously, maybe unwillingly, I like so many others became a voyeur of unimaginable terror and death. How could I sit there and watch pictures of thousands of people being killed? Was it to try and make sense of it? What could I do from such a distance that would have any meaning? Or was it repugnant but instinctive curiosity, the same urge that drives us to look at a car accident as we pass on the opposite carriageway? I don't know.

What I do know is that 9/11 was an event that changed many things. It is not an understatement to say that it changed the world. In those immediate few days and weeks afterwards, the world felt suddenly very alien and dangerous. Largely I think that climate of fear was manipulated by both our government and Bush to latterly support the supposed 'War on Terror.'

As I said at the beginning I have no desire to see those images from 9/11 again, any more than I have a wish to see any of the films that may be made about the events of that day. It is not because I want to ignore or deny what happened. On the contrary, I want it to feel as raw and inexplicable as it was for me at the time. I don't want the meaning of those terrible hours undermined, which they are becoming by the constant regurgitating of those fateful images. Moreover and I deeply feel this, the moment of those attacks are personal moments. People like the lady on the radio this afternoon lost those closest and dearest to them. They should be allowed to grieve in private, to have that moment of loss to themselves, not constantly poured over and discussed by the likes of me. Let us now show them the dignity that they were denied at the time.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


Sunday evenings are probably one of my favourite times of the week. It would be my favourite few hours of the whole week, if it wasn't looking for work on the Monday morning. However, this weekend is different as I am on leave for the next two weeks - yippeee!! So this does feel rather special. The knowledge that while everyone else will be struggling to get up tomorrow morning to pack themselves off for another day at the office or wherever, I can get up when I please, have a leisurely breakfast and enjoy the whole day to myself. Ah, the bliss :-)

Currently I am reading John Banville's The Sea, which was the Booker Prize Winner last year. It is a curious novel, told from the narrators - Max - point of view. More than anything The Sea is a melancholy remembrance of a childhood holiday and infatuation with Mrs Grace and her daughter Chloe. There is this sense that something terrible will befall these characters before the final pages and along with these faraway fantasy remembrances, Max is coping with the death of his wife, Anna. The prose is often turgid and if I stopped to look up every word I don't know or couldn't understand, I would be reaching for the dictionary every couple of minutes. It moves at a funeral pace and with deliberateness, as if every sentence has been carefully checked and tasted on the tongue first before being put into words. This is the first novel by Banville that I've read so I have no idea whether the style is typical of his work. It is interesting, with its sparse dialogue and deep diversions into meanings of life and death.

Later in the week, if the weather holds, I am going to take myself off for a day into the Marston Vale, which lies midway between Bletchley and Bedford. Fortunately for me it lies on the branch railway line that links the two towns and I've been reading that there are some rather pleasant walks from some of the stations on the route. It reminds me how little I know of this area where I live now. Whenever I go back to Pompey, I know places instinctively, I remember the geography of the surrounding area and feel at home, I guess. However, much of what lies around Milton Keynes and indeed in the rest of Buckinghamshire remains a mystery, which is a shame as what little I have discovered illustrates that there is some beautiful countryside nearby just begging to be explored.

Of course having a car would make it easier to get to these places. However, I happen to enjoy long and circuitous journeys by public transport mainly because it takes you to places that you just wouldn't bother going to if you had a car. Okay, so many of the places visited, you wouldn't want to go to again but often I enjoy it just for the journey. As an example, the bus that runs past the top of my road, will take me to the centre of Milton Keynes and the railway station. Beyond that, it takes a tortourous route through the housing estates of the north of the city, some interesting, others bland and unnoteworthy before ending rather curiously in a layby off a roundabout! However, once an hour the bus continues, for even more diversions through the 'new' city before creeping up on lovely Wolverton with its fine Victorian terraces and the imposing (what remains of it) railway works. From there, the bus takes a wild diversion out into the sticks, taking a lovely journey through the bucolic villages on the periphery of Milton Keynes before dropping down into the market town of Newport Pagnell.

Newport Pagnell itself is a fine example of what this part of North Buckinghamshire must have looked like before Milton Keynes arrived. It is right on the egde of the Borough and there is some inviting countryside beyond its fringes. The town itself has some fine and imposing buildings - The Swan Hotel and HSBC bank in the High Street come to mind, as well as the oldest iron bridge in daily use in the world on Tickford Street. There's a very nice looking church and some pleasant walks to be had through the town . All in all it has the air of a typical English town that seems to have become stuck in a timewarp somewhere around the 1960s.

Maybe I am just being overly optimistic and nostalgic here. Newport like everywhere else, still has the disease that seems to pervade every town or city now. Namely, drunkenness, youths hanging together causing mischief and the dreaded motor car that hurtles noisily and too fast up and down the High Street. No one seems to bother to take notice of how lovely the place is. Nobody pauses for breath to admire the fine buildings they hurry past. And this I think is the greatest shame. We don't realise just how nice the places are around us.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

A musical interlude

Tonight is the Last Night of the Proms and I love all the pomp and circumstance and eccentricity that goes with this most wonderful celebration of Britain and the British character. It is one of the few occasions I feel when we can celebrate our Britishness without fear or shame, which sadly so often seems to be the case today. Somehow we have moved from this proud nation of Elgar's rousing Pomp & Circumstance Marches to one, which is constantly afraid of celebrating its identity, fearful of political correctness. To hell with it, lets have some fun and celebrate what it means to be British!

I had my last visit to the Proms on Wednesday night this week and another wonderful performance. This time it was Mahler's monumental Symphony No.2 'Resurrection.' The symphony begins with a funeral march and ends with the orchestra in an unrestrained exultation of joy, of resurrection and eternal life. I found the finale incredibly uplifting and soul inspiring with the orchestra joined by off-stage musicians, a double chorus, two soloists and the Royal Albert Hall organ, which is a magnificent instrument in its own right. Wow, I was enraptured and thrilled to have heard such a wonderful piece and all the better for being performed live.

I've been on a bit of classical shopping spree recently as well. Purchases have included a CD of Vaughan Williams' music and today Carl Nielsen's Fourth & Fifth Symphony. Nielsen is a Danish composer that I've hardly heard of although I was interested in his work after reading in the Classic FM magazine that his Fourth Symphony is something of a showcase for the timpani, perhaps my favourite instrument of the symphony orchestra.

On a completely different musical tack, delivered yesterday was a DVD of David Gray Live in Concert. I saw this originally a few months ago and love every one of the songs. What I like about Gray and his music, is that it is heartfelt and difficult to categorise. It is different to most of the rubbish I hear these days and it seems to me, important. Each song is special and means something. Sometimes they're sad and melancholic like Flame Turns Blue, others are upbeat and fun but Gray invests his heart equally into each track and that above all else this is what attracts me to his music. I almost regret now not having discovered David Gray before his White Ladder album as I's subsequently found some of his best material predates this period. Still, I am beginning to catch up and as his earlier albums are available at bargain prices, it won't be long before I've completed the collection. There isn't one album of Gray's that I have where I haven't enjoyed every one of the tracks and to me it is a rare and vital talent that can make every song that good.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

A ride to nowhere?

I got myself an exercise bike yesterday. A colleague at work had no use for it anymore so happily delivered it to me for a bargain price of £15. Its just the next step in what to me sometimes seems like my increasingly vain and desperate attempt to get fit. Okay, lets not be so harsh on myself. I have managed to loose 2 stone in about 8 months, which I guess is quite an achievement. I would like to loose another 2 and that is proving very difficult and improve my general fitness. I don't have any lofty aims for this, after all I am not hoping to have the physique of a bodybuilder at the end of it, I just don't want to see that great mound of pale flesh that is my stomach all the time. Its almost like a cruel taunt in some ways, there never seems to be any less of it, so I do wonder where did I loose those 2 stones from?

I am hoping that the exercise bike will help. For a while now I've also been doing an exercise video, which is basically an hour long work out, although I've only managed to get through about half of it. Still that's more exercise than I've ever done in my life before. Plus, I am trying to do a lot more walking, taking this more gentle exercise to and from work every day, if possible. And on a Sunday I aim to either go out for a walk or do some gardening.

Trouble I really have is that I don't eat well. I go through phases of being quite obsessive about what I am eating and calorie and fat counting. I get to weeks of denying myself certain foods - chocolate, crisps and cheese tend to be the most popular ones I'll cut out - and then end up having a binge at the weekend. I have almost entirely cut out alcohol, which although I never drank a lot, does make a difference.

Probably my main problem with food is that I always eat too fast. That's bad because of course I am tempted to eat more as doesn't it take something like 30 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that you're full? Consequently I have a tendency to over-eat sometimes and feel quite bloated and uncomfortable, especially after dinner. Simple answer is to eat less and eat slower. I try although habit and instinct are difficult things to overcome.

Essentially I seem to be stuck in this dichotomy of some weeks being good, exercising frequently and then swinging to the next week when I will eat too much and do too little exercise. The latter is particularly bad as I can then get into the negative mind-set of convincing myself that I always be fat and what the hell with all this calorie counting and exercising, it ain't going to make the slightest difference. But I know it does.

If I look at how I feel now and compare it to where I was a year ago, I feel a lot healthier. I am not as fit or healthy as I should be and I have a long way to go in that regard. However, I think I need to stop feeling guilty about it, after all I've made steps in the right direction. Okay, I lapse, as we all do from time to time. That shouldn't stop me from focusing on what I have achieved and thus what I can achieve if I just keep the goal in sight.