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.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Silly superstitions

I have so much to say and so little time in which to say it! As you may have guessed I survived Friday 13th without any terrible tragedy befalling me or anyone near and dear to me. Of course nothing bad ever does seem to happen on Friday 13th and I don't know why I get so superstitious about it. Mind you I am the same about magpies. I don't remember the rhyme other than seeing one magpie is bad luck, 2 is okay and 3 or more brings all kinds of good things. At least I think that's right. Unfortunately or fortunately depending on the way you look at it, I see a lot of magpies on my way to work so every morning is like a constant worry about how many magpies I will see. Will it be a good day or one of unmitigated disasters? I have no scientific evidence that it matters how many magpies I see on the way to work and quite clearly from a rational point of view what difference is it going to make?

I have similar anxieties about walking under ladders. This one I vaguely understand as the three points are supposed to represent, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. I guess walking through is supposed to invite His wrath. This one I do sometimes chance, especially when faced with what appears to be the more immediately dangerous prospect of walking into the middle of the road and an oncoming torrent of cars!

The only other thing that I am particularly superstitious about is the side that I get into and out of bed. This one I know, if I get it wrong, spells a doom-laden day. How? Because one morning I got out the right side of bed and I had a day of minor disasters. So ironically I always get out of the left (or wrong) side of the bed every morning.

I don't really understand my reasons behind any of the above. They're all irrational and silly especially the one about the magpies! And I know even though I tell myself this often, I will still be getting out of bed on the left side tomorrow, counting the magpies I see on the way to work and making sure that I don't walk under any ladders...

Thursday, October 12, 2006


I had some good news earlier this week, having been successful in a job that I applied for. Although its the same level as my current role, it is a new opportunity and does invite a modest pay rise. Its all a bit uncertain at the moment as to when I will start as all the details are still being sorted out. In many ways this news has been very welcome as I've got to a point where I felt my career had stalled and I haven't been happy for a long time. Bizarrely the last couple of days at work I seem to have been everyone's best friend with people that I don't normally have anything to do with coming to shake my hand and congratulate me on my success. Or maybe they know something I don't...lol

Earlier on I was watching Holding On, a brilliant mid-90s TV series that was shown on BBC2. I'd watched it when it was first shown in 1997 and had forgotten just how good it was. It has a distinctive style of long tracking shots and characters addressing directly to camera. A powerful, raw and sometimes shocking piece of drama, it reminds me in many ways of Magnolia, with its disparate set of characters, facing terrible lows in their lives, interesecting with each other and eventually all coming together to one point. I can't remember how it ends although I have the feeling that all is resolved by the final episode.

I've been having a passionate debate with other posters at FanForce.net about the BBC of all things and this is on a Star Wars message board! Well it does allow general discussion too and someone invited comments on whether the BBC should surrender to advertising or hike the licence fee to £150. I don't find it difficult to summon the arguments for a staunch defence of the BBC and its licence fee. Although BBC TV has in my opinion lost its way in recent years, BBC Radio remains as excellent as ever. I have a huge respect and trust in the BBC name and its broadcasting as it has for so long been a constant companion in my life. Wherever I go, it is always the BBC I turn to for the news or to find out what's happening locally to where I am.

Tomorrow of course is Friday 13th. Although not normally a superstitious person, I am always wary of these unfavourablely dated Fridays. Don't know why, nothing spectacularly bad has happened on a Friday 13th and I see no reason why it should be so on this particular day any more than another. I think my dread of Friday 13th and Fridays in particular goes back to my days at school when a Friday always seemed to be the day when it would rain. I know its a false memory, after all it couldn't possibly have rained on every Friday of the school term could it? I think it was more that those days when it did seemed so grey and morose, a stark reminder that Monday would soon be around again.

Saturday I am going to Reading for my first OU Tutorial of the present course although my Tutor has rung and told me that he is also doing tutorials in London, which would be a lot more convenient. In just three weeks time I will be doing my first assignment and it hardly feels like I've started the course yet.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Untold Stories

About a week ago I borrowed Untold Stories by Alan Bennett from the library. Its an abridged audio CD of his anthology of unpublished writings and diaries from 1997 onwards. I was listening to some this morning although I wish I hadn't. Bennett's words spoken in his own warm and comforting voice are unbearably moving and refreshingly honest. I wish I had his ability to write with apparently no self-consciousness and with such brave directness. The particular piece I listened to this morning dealt with his mother's descent into depression and his father's death. It was beautifully told, moving and warm at the same time. He has a magnificent ability with words, able to sum up in a few carefully chosen sentences, what it would take a lesser man to say in a lifetime. Bennett is one of those people that I admire for his intuitive understanding of the human condition and all its failings and manages to write about that in a way that is simultaneously funny and imbued with deep pathos.

Lunchtime I ordered the book from Amazon along with a couple of others - both on American Presidents - Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

I am still reading Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, finding the authors clumsy dialogue as hard-going as some of his heavy-handed points about contemporary (at the time of writing) society. Its hardly earth-shattering, more a laborious journey which will hopefully arrive at some climax or revelation that will make it all seem worth while.

Last night I watched A History of Violence. About the most shocking thing about this film was how inured I was to the violence it portrayed. Even a few years ago, this would have been a film that I would have been unable to watch with its seemingly senseless and unnecessary violence and gruesome deaths. I am not even sure I got what the message of the film was, if there was one. Maybe it was to show that violence is something that runs through all our lives, that it is as unavoidable as death. I don't know. It didn't mean a lot to me. I felt rather hollow and strangely soiled by the end of it. Disappointing.

Going back to where I started Alan Bennett's The History Boys opens this weekend. This I know is a film that will not disappoint and hopefully I can make time on the weekend to get along to the flicks to see this.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

This week

There is a reason why I haven't updated my blog often in the last couple of weeks. I could bring out that lame old excuse that I've been too busy. That's my standby for most things. A real coward of an answer to either not wanting to do something, couldn't be bothered or don't care. None of those last three really apply here. The truth with the blog is that I've had plenty to say and time to say it in. The reason I haven't is because I am my own worst censor. I think of many things to say and often discard them almost immediately as either being too banal, boring or sometimes too revealing, perhaps. But that's nonsense really. This is my blog and I can be boring in it if I want, can't I? As for too revealing, this is something that I am sure will incense one regular reader of my blog who rightly and justly said that I say a lot without saying anything. I make no apologies for that, its my way and I'll be as downright obstinate about what I say as I want. Read between the words and I probably give away too much anyway.

I've had an interesting week. Monday was more a day of recovery from last weekend than anything and getting back in the hum-drum of work. Had some good news on Monday night - an interview for a job that I applied for, which took place on Thursday afternoon. I was one of only three people being interviewed, which was encouraging as it naturally lessens the odds. Haven't heard as yet whether I've got the job or not, expect to find out Monday hopefully.

Interviews I find a kind of sadistic slow torture, particularly the first question, which asked me to talk through my CV. My first reaction was, 'have you read the bloody thing?! Why do you need me to say what's already evident on the page?' I find getting through these direct personal questions easier if I think about it as being someone else they're asking me to comment on. By adopting this abstract view of myself I can become quite articulate. I have always been evasive of direct personal questions, even if they are not particularly personal. I'd much rather share what I want you to know than answer a direct question.

The other danger I have with interviews is my tendency to waffle and expound on a question that wasn't asked. Worse still after a few minutes I'll realise I am waffling and have totally forgotten the original question. Normally panic will then set in and I will finish off my discourse in some embarrassingly abrupt fashion that probably when thought through doesn't make the slightest sense. It really is a wonder then that I have ever managed to get any job on an interview alone. But at least there may be the smallest glimmer of hope that the interviewers may have seen through my obvious nerves and diversions and gleaned something of what they were looking for.

Wednesday night I watched the final episode of Six Feet Under. It left me, as the show has often done in the past, with a profound sense of sadness and something to think about long after the credits had rolled up the screen. It was very cleverly done intermixing the deaths of all the major characters with Claire's journey to start a new life in New York. In a very real sense the whole series has been about beginnings and endings and showing quite bravely, that death is just a part of life. It doesn't make me fear death any less, although I've often found the manner that Six Feet Under approached this last taboo refreshing and brutally honest.

Yesterday I got myself a new exercise bike to replace the one that broke a couple of weeks ago. Hopefully I can now get back into my exercise routine and start shedding some pounds. I certainly need too as my weight has gone up again these last few weeks. I seem to be stuck at this weight now, losing some one week, then putting it back on the next. If I was happy with the weight I am it wouldn't bother me but I am not. I have to find a way to turn that negative feeling into positive action and most importantly to keep going, even when the negativity gets overwhelming.

Also yesterday I started my latest Open University course - Power, Dissent, Equality: Understanding Contemporary Politics. Naturally, I cannot say much about the course material on here, however the opening book is provocative in its approach to politics and introducing an understanding of how important politics is in our every day lives. In particular it looks at the issue of refugees and asylum seekers and seeks to explain how the issue has become politicised and questioning whether we are really being swamped by asylum seekers or whether it is the way the figures have been used by politicians and tabloids to their own ends. Interesting stuff and it has got me thinking about my views on the subject.

Hopefully over the coming week I can keep the blog updated more often. No lame excuses for me this time next Sunday, I hope!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Busy, busy...

Last weekend was spent in the enjoyable company of friends in Southend-on-Sea, for a stag do celebration. I'd forgotten just how much paintballing hurt, ouch! I have less bruises this time than the one time before but I feel just as sore although fortunately the aches have eased. It was fun though, once I got over my initial almost paralyzing fear, lol! It's not fun when you're being hit from all angles by paintballs and are cowering behind the inadequate cover of a tree. It is fun though when you're running through the woods, letting loose with the paintball gun and getting your opponents. The games always seem to be over too quickly although it is surprisingly exhausting over the course of the day.

The evening was spent sampling the night life of Southend, which wasn't at all bad as it sounds. We ended in a nightclub - not really my thing if I am honest - but I made the most of it. Those sort of places always put me in mind of a butchers front windows, with a lot of meat and flesh on show, some of it well past its sell-by-date. Of course there were a few squabbles and the toilets were absolutely foul. But most people are there just to have a good time and for the most part end the evening either hopelessly drunk or sleeping with someone, who they'll not remember the name of in the morning. Hey ho, this is life, I guess.

I am not someone who has done either of those two things, btw. The drunk bit isn't me because I hate the after-effects. Yeah, there have been a couple of times when I've had too many and I've felt dreadful afterwards. In any case alcohol really does make me depressed especially when I've drunk a lot. Rather than being a disinhibitor, it can make me very withdrawn and bad company. Besides, I don't like the thought of not remembering what I did the night before in the cold light of the following dawn. As for the second, I like to think I have more dignity and respect for myself than that. Not to mention that the opportunity has never presented itself like that. Maybe I am old before I've been young and should be thinking, to hell with the consequences, live now and enjoy it while you can.

Nonetheless it was a good night and I'd forgotten just how good a kebab tastes after a night drinking. That used to be my thing when I was at college. Normally a Thursday night, sometimes a Friday and Saturday too or even more rarely a Sunday - down the pub for a few pints and then a kebab on the way home. I dread to think what they must taste like when sober! I was a hard drinker in those days, well I thought so at the time. Really I was nothing compared to the 'mates' I hung out with at the time. I use the word 'mates' advisedly because I neither like it nor were these young men really the sort I should of been associating with. They were a couple of sad losers. Not that I guess I was much different, I just felt better than that.

One of them was my 'best mate' for most of the time that we were at college. I can't understand why now. He was a loser in every respect - came from an unhappy home life, had a series of one-night stands with increasingly fat and unstable women and drunk excessively not to mention scoring some drugs here and there. Not forgetting that he was always borrowing money of me that was never repaid meaning that I was often broke when we went out, yet he was mean when it came to buying drinks. Yeah, what a great guy.

If nothing else I guess it was life experience. Not a good one admittedly but often the best experience, if I can say it that way, is neither pleasant nor enjoyable. This was for me a guide to people not to be friends with.

Anyhows back to the weekend in Southend. So, understandably the Sunday was a much quieter day. Didn't sleep in late because I am always up early on a weekend and besides the unfamiliarity of someone else's bed doesn't do wonders for restful sleep for me. It was a quiet day with people drifting off home at various points during the late morning and afternoon. Nice though to reflect on the fun of the weekend and for some to compare battle scars from the paintballing on the Saturday.

Then back to work on Monday and the last two nights working late as we're sinking with work at the moment.

It feels as if I have been really busy - there's been lots of irritating little jobs and chores to be done around the flat. Really must concentrate on getting prepared for my OU course, which starts this Saturday.