Monday, February 19, 2007

A fun weekend

If variety is the spice of life, then I think I’ve had my share this weekend just gone! It is rare that I get to do and enjoy so many of the things that I actually like or want to do. This year I am making a conscious effort to get out and about and go places and do things that I’ve long wanted to do or thought I would enjoy.

Saturday started with my OU Tutorial at Kings College, London. I do enjoy these sessions because it is nice to meet the other people on the course and our tutor, Andy, puts across the material in an interesting and engaging manner. This section of the course has been on political theory and ideology, not exactly for me at least, the most riveting of subjects. Dry as dust, would be a more apt description of how I’ve found it. But Saturday’s tutorial was actually quite interesting because instead of talking about abstract theories of social justice and freedom, we were talking about them in context of the everyday. It certainly made things clearer for me anyway.

After the tutorial, I took a rather circuitous route via the tube to Mile End in East London. Why I hear you cry! Because Mile End was the starting point of a walk along the Regents Canal that I’ve been planning to do for a few weeks. It comes from a book borrowed from the library, which I enjoy so much I really don’t want to take it back, which has about twenty different walks around London’s docklands, canals and rivers. I’ve always been interested in canals and not just because some of us are going on a canal holiday in May. My earliest interest in canals was I recall sparked while at school and we had a day trip visiting the lock gates and following the route of the Portsmouth & Arundel Canal. Much of that canal has long since been lost but the most significant reminder of its existence is the cutting between Fratton and Portsmouth & Southsea railway stations, originally part of the canal until the railways took it over. The railways were the death knell for the canals, providing a much quicker and more efficient means of transferring goods around the country and between the ports and the major industrial centres.

Anyhows, back to Mile End and this is where I started my walk along the Regents Canal. The first picture (left) is looking back towards Mile End Lock, in the distance you might just be able to make out the tower of Canary Wharf. The Regents Canal runs from the Limehouse Basin in Docklands to the Paddington Basin, linking up with the Grand Union canal. The Regents Canal was thus a vital link between the docklands and the Grand Union, which meant barges and their loads can easily reach the industrial Midlands. Before the opening of the Grand Union canal navigation was by a rather indirect route to Oxford and thence by the Thames into London.

The second picture (right) is taken from Bonner Bridge and you can see the magnificent Victoria Park on the left. If I read the information board correctly this was the first municipal park in the world. As the tow path was closed along here I had a pleasant diversion through the park and it is easy to forget that this is London, so bucolic is the setting.

In contrast to this rather nice scene, most of the route along the Regents Canal is of an industrial/semi-residential landscape. The third picture (below, centre) is typical of most of the route, although some of the warehouses have now been turned into rather smart apartment and office blocks. One thing, which is particularly interesting about the Regents Canal is that all the lock’s are doubled up so that boats travelling in either direction could use the lock simultaneously. My guide book tells me that the twin locks were abandoned after the Second World War when an unfortunate incident led to the flooding of Kings Cross station.

The final picture along the canal (left) is taken looking at the City Road Basin (to the right), which covers an area of 4 acres and would have been considerably more substantial in the heyday of the canal. A smart office block is also seen on the right. Not far from here the canal comes to an abrupt halt (at least for pedestrians) with the Islington Tunnel. This was where I decided to quit on my trip – I think the journey (including a rather torturous diversion through Dalston to account for another towpath closure) was about 3 ½ miles. It is possible to rejoin the canal at the other end of the half-mile Islington Tunnel, which brings you to Kings Cross and then follow the canal through Regents Park and past the zoo, down to its termination at Little Venice (Brownings Pool) and Paddington Basin. I’ve the short exploration of the latter towards the end of last year.

What was particularly enjoyable about this walk is that it took me through previously unknown parts of London and it reflects a changing and fascinating urban landscape, which it is impossible to appreciate from the road. I hope to do more of the walks in the book over the coming months and certainly complete the other 4 miles of the Regents Canal.

Sunday was another immensely enjoyable day as I took myself off down to Brighton for the Modelword show at the Brighton Centre. It has been many years since I’ve been but as kid my dad would take me every year. It was kind of an early birthday present. Two things really stick in my mind about those days. One was the torturous bus journey of almost three hours from Portsmouth to Brighton (which thanks to Stagecoach it is still possible to endure!) and the other was the model boat display.

Lets be blunt, Modelworld is an event for anoraks and men that are still little boys at heart. Yep, it attracts its fair share of the downright strange and weird but no more so than your average Star Wars convention! Modelworld, as I remember it, was always primarily an exhibition for model railways. That is what I loved as a kid and still love now. I admire these men, for all their eccentricities and knitted jumpers and cardigans because they are so passionate about it. It is with pride that the groups and societies often have the word ‘engineer’ somewhere in their titles because often they will have built from scratch or kits the locomotives and rolling stocks that run. Even the wiring of a large scale layout still leaves me completely baffled! The best layouts are always the ones which reflect, as closely as possible, the practice on the real railway. It isn’t just about trains running around a loop of track, it is about the faultless attention to detail about how trains are run, the landscapes and buildings, the way the complete layout is assembled.

I was pleased to see that the model boats display was in attendance and the star attraction was Titanic. Hopefully from these pics of the model and you can get some idea of the scale of the ship from these I hope. Unfortunately the pool was too small for her to get a good cruise around and Titanic spent most of its 15 minute turn being pushed around by the tugboat. Again, the attention to detail is quite amazing, these are men (invariably it is men) who are deeply passionate and committed to their hobby.

But it wasn’t all model railways and boats, in fact there was rather too little of the former in my opinion. There were lots of sales stands – even saw some Star Wars models for sale – model tanks, some astonishing large scale models of Southern Railway locomotives, various societies and guilds, model hovercraft, a ‘Robot Wars’ style arena and even full scale Daleks in the foyer chasing children!

Sunday finished watching the South Bank Show profile of W H Auden, one of the few – well the only poet if I am honest – whose work I have any time for. I’ve always liked Auden’s ‘Night Mail’ but knew little else of his work or the man himself. Still didn’t feel like I’d learned a lot by the end of this programme other than some tantalising tasters of other Auden poems and a sense that he was a grumpy old man! Alan Bennett described him as a ‘bully,’ ‘a shambles’ and an ‘unlovable man.’ The most powerful praise was from Andrew Motion who as young man described meeting Auden as being like meeting God. One of the more interesting comments was about the relevance of Auden’s work today – his poem 1 September 1939 was apparently used as the mourning song for 9/11. His work was described as being a sound track to the twentieth century and in particular war and tragedy, which I thought was rather depressing.

It is a mystery why this programme was shown in the graveyard slot of 11.10pm on a Sunday night, perhaps that is indicative of ITV’s attitude towards the arts? It is disappointing that in this year, the 100th anniversary of Auden’s birth, that he is being almost completely overlooked. There was some suggestion that this could be due to Auden’s decision to flee to America at the outbreak of the Second World War, something which was deeply contentious at the time and remained so throughout his life. It would be nice to think though that events of 70 years ago could be put behind us and we could celebrate one of the great Britons.

Friday, February 16, 2007

What I am listening to at the moment

For the first time in several months I remembered to tune in to BBC 7 on Wednesday night at 7pm to listen to Round the Horne. I love these shows and although Round the Horne and its predecessor Beyond our Ken were first broadcast back in the 50s and 60s I still find them immensely funny and enjoyable. There has never been better radio comedy in my opinion, or at least I haven't heard it if there has. I like Round the Horne's bizarre cast of characters from Rumbling Syd Rumpo to Julian & Sandy to Charles & Fiona and it doesn't matter how many times I hear the sketches, they're still funny. Personally, I feel it works so well because the humour is so quintessentially English. Its of the saucy postcard variety with much double entendre, slapstick and occasional satire. There is nothing outrageously offensive in the humour and it is so well performed that Round the Horne never fails to impress and leave me laughing like a drain for 30 minutes. Must remember to tune in again next week!

One of the other pleasures I've found recently on the radio is the Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4 - 8pm Wednesdays, although I normally catch the repeat at 10.15pm on Saturdays. The basics of the programme is that Michael Buerk is joined by a panel who cross-examine expert witnesses on a chosen moral issue of the week. The debate is often fascinating and always intelligent. Recent weeks have included debates on gambling and the Catholic Church's stand on gay adoption. Although there is rarely a consensus reached by the end of the programme on the issue being discussed, what I enjoy is the fact that it challenges the witnesses and their arguments in an intelligent and forthright manner and often makes me evaluate and reconsider my own opinions.

Earlier on Saturday nights on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm is the Archive Hour. This is not always a programme I tune in for and I first listened last year with a programme reflecting on the development and history of Milton Keynes. It was a fascinating trawl through the radio archives, with interviews with locals back in 1967 who were both apprehensive and fearful of the coming of the new city. Interestingly, the presenter who made a point of visiting Milton Keynes, found that contemporary residents largely like the place and while much was lost, including many acres of fertile farmland and village life, the overall view was that Milton Keynes had brought many more benefits than disadvantages.

Also on Saturdays between 5-7pm is Classic FM at the Movies, which I seem to most weeks miss or only catch the beginning or end of. This is a great programme for someone like me who loves movie scores because it covers not just recent releases but the classics as well from the golden age of Hollywood. It does tend though to play too much of the popular excerpts from scores when it would be nice to hear the less well known pieces and occasionally to hear a full score.

During the week, depending on what time I get home I either listen to the irreverent Ronnie Barbour on BBC Three Counties Radio or Smooth Classics at Seven on Classic FM. The latter is a perfect soothe to a hard day!

Sunday evenings at 6.30pm on BBC Radio 2 have become one of the highlights of the week for me. Alan Titchmarsh presents Melodies for You, which is basically and excuse for him to play a selection of his favourite music for two hours each week. I really enjoy this show, its perfect for a Sunday evening, sublime and beautiful music interspersed with measured chat.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


I've had a frustrating day. At work I am getting into the siege mentality and by that I mean that I feel hounded from one quarter or another, with an ever amassing case load on my desk. I swear at points today there was literally a queue of people waiting at my desk, it felt like that anyway. And e-mail is the absolute curse of the modern office in my view. Often abused and over utilised in sending pointless or senseless messages, which occupy too much focus and time when I feel energies could be spent doing something more productive. Why do people feel the need to copy the whole office in on the most inconsequential of messages. Its not like you would 'phone everyone in the office to tell them! Then I wonder, in exasperation that is unfair and unjustified, 'can nobody do anything right?' And I include myself in that. Under pressure I don't do my best. I make silly mistakes, I find myself correcting and becoming annoyed by the stupid things I get wrong. It becomes a self-defeating cycle, piling more pressure to do better when really a break from it all for a few minutes to clear the mind would be a better idea.

Everyone in the office is under pressure at the moment, tempers (although not mine) occasionally fray and people understandably become irritable. Then the management ask if we would like to work weekends as well, as if working five days a week slogging our guts out isn't enough! Noticeably those asking are often the last in and first out the door come the beginning and end of the day.

I have to admit that my recent tardiness is beginning to be noticed. The odd comment here and there. But try as I might, I can't summon any enthusiasm to go into work. I prejudge the day before I get there, I know what it's going to be like. Mostly I am right.

One of the things I hate most is conflict of any sort. I will go to great lengths to avoid saying 'no' which often is a feature of the job I do. It is almost certainly going to lead to an unhappy and maybe aggressive response from the person who is being told 'no.' I worry about some of the cases I have to deal with, fretting over the 'phone call I am going to have to make for maybe hours, even days beforehand and then over-analyse it afterwards to the point that I doubt myself. I've had to say 'no' a couple of times today and in recent days.

What really pissed me off though was a comment from someone patronising me about losing weight and how 'you know its not good for the heart and you can get diabetes.' Well, thank you very much for the newsflash! I knew that already and I don't need supercilious remarks like that to make me feel any worse than I do about it. Its the arrogance of that sort of remark that irritates me. The presumption that I am fat because I want to be and that it is all my own fault. Well, yes, true it is because I have little self-control and yes it is my fault. But, here's another newsflash, it ain't easy losing weight. For me I don't think it is eating that is the problem it is the emotional issues that I need to deal with and the self-pity. It so easy to fall into a self-reinforcing cycle of negativity where I am convinced that I will never loose weight, so why even bother making an effort? I hate being fat. I hate it. I hate myself as much for being so weak as not able to do anything about it.

But that's crap isn't it? I need a slap in the face for that sort of remark. I am just making excuses. I am feeding that negative cycle and I want to stop doing that. I can't do that though unless I address what is really underlying all this and that is something I can't face. Because I don't want to. Because it is easier to deny or avoid dealing with things that are too painful. So the cycle continues.

Aaarghhh! I don't know whether to cry or slam my fists on the table!

Tomorrow is a new day.

Hopefully it will be a better one.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Some of my favourite web sites

Firstly I must give a plug to a new blog from my friend, Derek, Goosey World. Its only just started but I am sure its going to be fun and with Derek's encyclopedic knowledge of films and love of DVD's plenty of obscure factoids and trivia along the way I am sure!

On my recent travels around the Internet I found this rather quirky web site, TV & Radio Bits, which has many intriguing and interesting features on TV and radio. This is a real anoraks site for people like me who should really get out more! It has everything you could want - idents, jingles, histories of obscure radio and TV, programme listings from years gone by etc, etc. It is lovingly put together and with such passion and interest in the history of these obscure and often forgotten bits of the broadcasting world.

Changing track completely another web site that I do check regularly is End of the Line. If you thought the last site was for anoraks, this is for the true anorak in me! The site is basically a database of where every locomotive that has run on British Railways is now. It is regularly updated (usually every day) with the latest movements - what's been scrapped, what's running and where, reallocations and renumberings and the rest. Pretty much everything to send anyone not into railways into a deep coma!

Keeping the transport theme, another of my favourite sites, which I discovered about 18 months ago is Milton Keynes Day Out. This site has given me many ideas for travels from Milton Keynes and is surprisingly comprehensive in its coverage of local bus and train services. Really to its credit is the detail of the information on tickets and how to get the best bargain. Something which this site does that most train operators don't (certainly not in MK anyway) is publicise the PlusBus scheme and the East Midlands Rail Rover. Really it shouldn't be down to a committed enthusiast to provide this sort of information, the local bus and rail companies should be doing this as a matter of course.

Onto my other passion, Star Wars, and here is a link to a fab film on YouTube - Triumph of the Empire. This is a spoof Imperial Information Film, using to marvellous effect, Star Wars Lego and the music of Gustav Holst. Watch it and enjoy!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

My love of local radio

A few weeks ago I was mocked for saying that I was a regular listener to my local BBC radio station, Three Counties Radio. True, I am not exactly the average or indeed for the most part the intended audience for BBC Local Radio. Generally speaking the BBC's local broadcasting is aimed at those over 40 and upwards but I've always been a fan. The main reason for that is probably because when growing up every radio in the house was permanently tuned to what was then my local station, BBC Radio Solent. It was a rare occurrence indeed to find my mum or dad listening to anything else although I seem to recall that Radio 2 occasionally broke the monopoly of local broadcasting in the Richards household. Commercial radio was unheard, after the disappearance of Radio Victory in the mid-80s.

One of the main appeal's of BBC Local Radio for me has been the fact that it is a news and information led service with a talk based format. I've always been a news junkie and at school one of my many ambitions for a while, was to be a journalist and radio journalism in particular appealed. I've always liked the immediacy of radio, which to this day still beats TV when a story is breaking. There is no need for pictures or flashy graphics to present a story. It can be told simply and quickly in words, which are often more informative than the repetitive images that tend to be shown on television news. In addition I think the quality of news reporting tends to be better on radio, because rather than relying on pictures to tell the story, the journalist has to convey the sense of what has happened painting pictures with words. That is a skillful job and if done well can be immensely interesting listening.

So back to BBC Local Radio. It's news service for me on a local level is second to none. Not only does each BBC station have the resources of BBC News to provide material - the worlds largest newsgathering organisation - it also has its own reporters and journalists, often based around the its broadcasting patch. Indeed, it is often in moments of crisis that BBC Local Radio comes into its own. I can just about remember some of the coverage on Solent around the time of the Falklands War and then during the first Iraq War, when the station brought a local slant on these stories that were affecting many people living in the area.

The strengths of the BBC are combined with a more local and friendly service that is distinctive as each local station reflects the communities it serves. That is an important distinction and one of the attractions of the BBC Local Radio service to me over Independent Local Radio, which is largely similar (under common ownership) and plays the same music and same programme format wherever it happens to be based.

Its often forgotten that BBC Local Radio is also a leader in broadcasting. For example, Three Counties, became the first radio station in the country to provide a programme specifically for the Romany community and travellers. Indeed the station offers an extensive service for the large Asian and Black communities in this area as well as specialist programmes for the Italian and Irish inhabitants of the patch. These types of services could never be provided by Independent Local Radio and is one of the many strengths of BBC local broadcasting.

So, it is a combination of local news, information, a friendly and approachable style of broadcasting and a broad appeal to the community it serves that are for me the strengths of BBC Local Radio. As an aside, the model of BBC local broadcasting is based on the American model of local radio and was pioneered by the veteran war correspondent, Frank Gillard. And it has to be said that as the BBC's local radio service is celebrating 40 years of broadcasting in 2007, it must be doing something right!

Thursday, February 08, 2007


Sometimes I think its true that you can find literally whatever you want to know on the Internet. I've had one of those evenings where I started out with a certain purpose in mind but about 2 hours later ended up wondering what I'd spent all that time doing. And on the way visited some interesting sites and found out some stuff that I didn't know.

I had some specific songs in mind that I wanted to download from iTunes. As I was doing this I decided to search for music by John Miles, an artist who I only know from his 1976 hit Music. I've downloaded a couple of tracks from his debut album, Rebel, including Music, When You Loose Someone So Young and You Have it All. From there I ended up doing a search on Wikipedia and found my way to John Miles' homepage and so now know that he was born in Jarrow, North East England, Rebel was his debut album, he has toured with Tina Turner amongst others and details of albums he has released since. Going off at a tangent I read that part of his track Music was used for a jingles package for Independent Local Radio Station Mercury! Its amazing what you can discover on the Internet! More than likely I will buy Rebel as I like the three tracks that I've downloaded, even though I've only listened to them through properly the once.

Anyhows I burned myself a CD from the tunes I downloaded, selecting mainly stuff from the 1960s, 70s and 80s because to be honest, I am not that impressed with much that has been released since. So, I have tracks from the aforementioned John Miles, Harry Chapin, Bobby Goldsboro, Glen Campbell, Billy Ocean, Sweet Sensation, Elvis Presley, Nina Simone, Leo Sayer and Don McLean. Um, a bit of a mix I guess! They're all artists and particular tracks I've chosen because either they have particular memories or they're just great tunes. Mostly, its music that I remember hearing on the radio as a kid. I know, not the kind of music that most young boys or teenagers would listen to! But then I think music is a personal thing and although it may not appeal to anyone else, it is special to me and that is what is important. I don't want to be one of the crowd and certainly not when it comes to my taste in music!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Tomorrow is a better day

I've not been happy of late. Downright miserable and irritable would perhaps be more accurate to say. I am feeling happier now, the dark mood has lifted quite considerably. One of the reasons I haven't updated this blog is because no one wants to hear a miserable sod going on about his woes. It gets tiresome after a while and problem is when I am in that mood I often say many things that I'll later feel bad about. In the cold light of the morning things always seem more rational and it leaves me often wondering what was all the fuss and heat about.

There is no one thing I can say which has promoted this unhappy state of mood for the last week and a bit. Mainly it has been work. Getting pissed off about my new job, not enjoying it at all because what I have done so far I feel is a waste of my abilities and just doesn't enthuse me with any motivation. In fact I wonder if I didn't turn up one day if anybody would notice my absence. All week, I've been getting to work increasingly late and not one word has been said about it. I am convinced that if I didn't make the effort to engage others in the occasional conversation, mainly to vent my frustration*/unhappiness*/anger* (* delete as appropriate) about work, I'd sit in silence all day.

I know its a bad mind set to be in because negative thoughts and moreover negative talk is self-serving and defeating. It doesn't achieve anything and I don't feel better for having said the things I've said, just more negative and despondent. Not good.

Things are better. Today has been a better day. I feel happier, more in control. I am trying to keep smiling, looking at the positive rather than the negative. Tomorrow is another day. That's what I keep in mind.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things

I am sure I have mentioned in this blog before about my adoration for Jon McGregor's stunning debut novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. I mention it again because I see that a new edition of the book has been published this year. I came across it purely by chance, as I was looking for a novel by Tim Lott whose Rumours of a Hurricane is an excellent read particularly as a good deal of it is set in Milton Keynes. In the end I didn't buy either of these books - I opted for Philip Roth's The Human Stain.

Anyhows I am digressing.

So, seeing McGregor's book in an attractive new cover and some additional blurb on the cover from the publishers, I did the one thing which I always hate everyone else doing, I blocked up the aisle, absorbing myself again in McGregor's wonderful prose. Moreover I was engaged by the new introduction that has been written for the book and a section at the back, which poses questions about the novel, the idea being that these can form the basis of a discussion in a reading group. Just reading those few bits brought flooding back all the wonderful things about this book and made me question it again.

I've read If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things twice at least, possibly three times and each time I have come away with something new. I've seen the characters through fresh eyes each time and different parts have caught my attention. What remains true is that I think this is a stunning piece of modern fiction. It is complex in structure, unusual in its style and imaginative. What is so fascinating is the rhythm of the words, not really like conventional prose at all. Reading McGregor's book feels different to a normal novel and better for it.

I also like the way that he elevates the everyday into something magical. The mundane becomes remarkable and the characters although they remain deliberately anonymous have such fascinating and beautifully moving stories. That is what sticks out for me. The fact that even in the street where we live there is so much we don't know, all the drama, the highs and lows of each life. All the remarkable things that ordinary people do each day.

And the book has a quite shattering climax. McGregor deliberately slows the pace as he tells in vivid detail the final tragedy. It changes the perspectives of everything else that happens on that nameless day at the end of summer. Even in the midst of the events that change everything, McGregor observes how life in the anonymous city continues just as normal. While the central characters at the centre of the book are changed forever, the heartbeat of the city doesn't pause.

I'd recommend this book whole heartedly and indeed McGregor's second novel, So Many Ways to Begin, which adopts a similar style. I might even buy If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things again, just so that I can have the new version on my shelf!