Saturday, December 30, 2006

Post Christmas blues

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

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

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

Friday, December 22, 2006

So Christmas is here...

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 18, 2006

The best of everything 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Christmas card dilemma

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


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

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

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

So you can see my dilemma?

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

Friday, December 08, 2006

Review of 2006 Part 1 - January to March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

More wonderful music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Does multicultralism work?

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

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

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

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