Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Getting my soap box out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 27, 2006

The wonderful music of Samuel Barber

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sunday morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 23, 2006


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Some nice things

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

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

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

Sunday, November 19, 2006


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 12, 2006

New opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 05, 2006

More reading material

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Happy days and Saturdays

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

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

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

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

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

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