Monday, May 28, 2007

Weather report

Another wet Bank Holiday weekend then...although I would take issue with the young weatherman earlier who said that temperatures were exceptionally cold. Yes, it is somewhat below the average but exceptionally so? Everyone seems to obsess so much about the weather these days to the point where even the slightest change in the temperature, hours of sunshine or amount of rain (or more often the lack of it) seems to create a crisis mentality, suddenly it's bitterly cold, unbelievably hot or so unusual. The only explanation that there possibly can be is that its 'global warming' an umbrella term that seemingly explains away any change in the weather, not simply the fact that the weather has always been wildly unpredictable and chances are, however strange or unusual it may seem to us, it has probably been like this before! I don't get too concerned about it myself. I accept that living in Britain the weather will be unpredictable, every now and again it genuinely surprises me but most of the time, lets face it, the weather is mediocre. Maybe that's why we get so excited when the mercury creeps up a few degrees or there's a few days or rain and the wind picks up a bit on a Bank Holiday?

As for how the weather is in my life at the moment, well looking outside it is looking grey and overcast. An improvement on this morning when it was raining, cold and windy, just like most Bank Holidays. More personally, I guess I would describe my life as being sunny interludes with frequent showers and occasional heavy thundery storms. Not that I get angry much or at least not so that anyone would notice. The sun comes and ago in life, both in the sky and personally. The moment is a fairly happy time, I feel content, a faint feeling of smug satisfaction with life in general. No doubt now I've said that, something will happen tomorrow to unsettle that feeling. Yep, I am an eternally hopeful pessimist. In other words, I always hope for the best but expect the worst and then I can tell myself 'I told you so' when it goes all horribly wrong.

My moods are often as changeable as the weather although less severe in their occurrence. I don't flip from being happy one moment to ranting the next, although I can. Normally it takes days to move from being one feeling to the other and then back again. I guess not many people who know me would say that I strike them as being a particularly moody or emotional person but I think I am. Often it is the silliest things that will set me off. I think most people are like that, it is the minor irritations, the little mistakes or mishaps that seem to matter so much. I have a tendency to dwell to much on things and to worry to an excess. Neither is particularly healthy or helpful and I am trying hard to think differently and not worry about the things that I cannot change. Certainly it is a piece of advice that I am free in giving to others. What's the point in worrying about something if you can't control or change it? Put it to the back of your mind and get on with life. Easier said than done, of course. A lot of the time my anxieties are made worse by the fact that I don't have someone at home who I can simply talk to. It is cliche - 'its good to talk' - although how true it is. Even simply to have someone to listen is enough.

As for being emotional, often as with my anxieties, it is the smallest and often stupidest of things that sets me off. Don't get the wrong idea, I am not the sort of person that falls to pieces all the time. I do feel things keenly, too much so sometimes. I find it difficult to talk about if not impossible. See now what I've done? I've started depressing myself by taking off on this tack, damn it!

Back to the hear and now, I am happy you know. Mostly, quite often even and sometimes I just can't wait to start a new day. This year has been a good one for me thus far, even if the sun hasn't shone in the sky everyday it has been mostly sunny inside for me. So there's my weather report before I start ruminating on how dark and sullen it looks outside again...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Cruising the Grand Union

I returned on Saturday from a lovely week's holiday with the Groovy Gang cruising the Grand Union Canal from Linslade to Braunston and return, crossing three counties, through 27 locks (although I am sure there was more but this is what our guide book says!), over 2 aqueducts and through 2 tunnels. It was a wonderful experience, seeing a different side of England and the countryside that is often hidden from the road or the railway. I would love to do the trip again and already my appetite for walking more of the canal has been whetted.

We started our holiday in Linslade, which is the sister town to Leighton Buzzard. Not too far for me, as its only one stop down the line from Bletchley! Our home for the week was a narrowboat called Pearl, a nicely appointed craft with all the facilities needed for a holiday. I was surprised at how spacious the boat was; the bathroom was a decent size with a full-sized shower, wash basin and toilet. The kitchen was a little cramped with barely any workspace at all. The living area was comfortable, although a bit cosy for the five of us! The beds were okay, although I found mine a little narrow, especially when I turned over in the night to suddenly find myself balanced on the edge! There was a seating area to the front, in what is called the cockpit although the boat itself was steered from the stern (rear). This was probably my favourite place of all, being sat outside in the dry or wet, just watching the canal and attendant countryside slip peacefully by.

The canal from Linslade takes a winding and twisty route through the Bedfordshire countryside. We were guided to our first lock by Pete from the company we'd hired the boat. Operating the locks was surprisingly straightforward and by the time we'd navigated the Three Locks at Soulbury we were old hands, lol! Doing the locks is fun, although at times hard and occasionally miserable work, when you're cold and being lashed by heavy rain. Fortunately on the first stretch we were going through the locks with another holiday boat crewed by Swedes, who Jamie was convinced were swingers! Having the extra hands certainly made the work that bit easier. Theresa did the driving for the first part and proved to be a natural, I on the other hand was not!

We moored up for the first night at Fenny Stratford; after several hours gentle cruising we'd arrived barely 40 minutes walk from my home! Even though this was familiar territory there is something quite different about being on a canal boat. The world seems different, the pace of life is much slower. There is no hurry to be anywhere, no deadlines to meet, no stress or pressure. After all, top speed is a pedestrian 4 mph. I think a couple of days of that slower pace was reflected in how I saw things. Apart from our stops in Fenny and Milton Keynes, we barely touched the bustle of civilisation. About the only, almost constant companion on our journey was the West Coast Main Line. There was a brief part flirting with the M1 and a couple of busy roads but even they seemed worlds away, we were going at our own pace, in our own slowed down England, while the hustle and bustle of modern life continued somewhere else.

The second day was mostly navigating through Milton Keynes and although I've walked parts of the towpath before, this was still a different experience and a secluded part of the city that is often never seen and probably forgotten. Indeed, it is so green and bucolic it was difficult to imagine that we were in the heart of Europe's fastest growing urban area.

One of the nicest aspects of the holiday was stopping either for lunch or an evening meal at a canalside pub. All but one was enjoyable and the convivial atmosphere, good food and drink that we enjoyed at each was a welcome respite at times from the seemingly relentless rain on those first few days. Plus, most had a games machine, where we must have wasted a good deal of spare change not to mention time trying to win something on 'Deal or No Deal' or '1 vs 100' although admittedly by the end of the week we were getting rather good at it.

The week was not without its incident. Monday for example we were delayed for several hours at the bottom of the Stoke Bruerne Lock Flight as some idiot had decided to drive a car into one of the locks. The lock had to be drained before the car could be recovered. Needless to say there was the canal equivalent of a traffic jam as boats queued up to use the locks. Even this irritation was not really one at all, as Tim and I took the opportunity to have a game of Star Wars Miniature Battles, which inevitably I lost! Once under way we made good progress. In need of sustenance at the end of the locks (there are seven I seem to recall) we stopped at a pub although to our disappointment and unhappy rumbling of stomachs had arrived too late for food. Fortunately another pub a bit further down the canal towpath was serving food, so we could slake our thirst and satisfy our hunger.

Further on in the afternoon we came across a narrowboat, adrift in the canal, at first looking suspiciously like a Mary Celeste discovery until we realised that it had come free of its moorings. After sorting that out, we were on our way again and moored up for the night in a tranquil setting, distant from any civilisation. It is amazing how dark and clear the night is outside of the city or town and how many stars you can see in the sky. Such a change from that awful orange hue that seems to surround the urban night sky.

By the end of Tuesday we arrived at our northernmost destination, Braunston. A lovely little village perched above the canal, some miles north of Daventry. Another enjoyable evening meal at the Old Plough in the High Street, before returning to the boat where the others watched Doom. Feeling exhausted and very tired I went for a lie down and fell asleep, although perhaps it was a mercy as I am told the film was awful.

Wednesday we started our journey back, which seemed to be a lot quicker than the outward run. Perhaps we had become quite adept at the locks by this point and so were able to get through them quicker. Or maybe more confident in handling the boat, although less said about that for me, the better! Yes there were a few scrapes and quite a bang while I was piloting but the less said about that probably the better.

Little disappointed on the way back that we didn't have the opportunity to visit the Canal Museum at Stoke Bruerne as I would have liked to have done that. Still, it is not far from here and if I can find a suitable bus to get me there I intend to visit in the next couple of weeks.

I forgot to mention earlier in my description of the outward passage the two tunnels that we passed through on the journey. The first (going north) was at Blisworth, a 2-mile long voyage into the abyss. It is a quite incredible feat of engineering, having stood the test of more than 200 years and a quite eerie experience. The latter was not helped by Jamie's crys of some deranged soul who'd been trapped in the tunnel for years! Atmospheric, cold and very damp, it was quite an experience. The second tunnel was just before Braunston and this one has a notable kink in it because the tunnel was apparently excavated from either end and unfortunately did not meet up in the middle! Consequently you can't see from one end to the other.

A incident of note on the way back was a walk that myself, Tim & Sharon decided to take whilst we were moored for the evening at Haversham, just to the north of MK. It was meant to be a gentle stroll for an hour or so but turned into much more of an adventure as we got hopelessly lost, ending up in a nature reserve! Muddy paths, climbing over gates, crossing cattle grids and even clambering over some barbed wire! We made it back to the boat though for another fine supper prepared by Theresa, who it has to be said, was an absolute star when it came to keeping us fed. The walk despite its hairy encounter with the barbed wire was worth it not least for the ruined church and the fantastic sunset that we saw walking back to the boat, a beautiful bath of light on the ruins and a nearby tree, surely a watercolour masterpiece just crying out to be painted.

The final full day, Friday, was a leisurely one with a lunchtime stop in Milton Keynes. I love showing people MK and I am sure that I probably bore my friends with the same stories. I soak up all sorts of details about the city and try to learn as much as I can about it. I was the same when I lived in Portsmouth, I have a voracious interest in the place where I live and Milton Keynes is particularly exciting because of its mix between old and new, city and countryside. Later on Friday we met Jane at The Three Locks, north of Linslade, where we would have our final evening together on the boat. I still don't think my ears have quite recovered from the experience of everyone singing along to Grease, which Jane had brought with her. I personally didn't sing because I am tone deaf and hearing me sing is slightly less pleasant than the sound of a strangled cat.

By the end of the week it seemed like we had been away for ages. Saturday morning came around all too soon though. We were up early, underway by 8am to get the boat back to Linslade and the yard before 9.30, which we did. After saying our brief farewells at the station, Jane and I made our way back to MK. It was a shame that we didn't get a final photo of all of us before we left as I would have liked a group photo of the weary sailors.

In short, it was a fabulous week and I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. In fact I would go so far to say as it was one of the best holidays I've had. I'd love to do another narrowboat holiday, probably visiting a different canal or a different route but there is much that I've seen on the Grand Union Canal that I would like to visit again. It was certainly an experience that will stay fresh in the memory for many years.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Its been a busy couple of weeks as I have been working in Birmingham, which I haven't at all minded. In fact I rather enjoyed the travelling each day, as rather perversely I like going anywhere on the train. The office I was working at overlooks Snow Hill station and just opposite there is a reminder of the former grandeur of the station, with a blocked up former entrance, endorsed with 'GWR' - Great Western Railway, or 'God's Wonderful Railway' as it is affectionately known. From the pictures I recall seeing of Snow Hill it was a much grander station than the dingy box it is now with a multi-storey car park sitting atop it. Indeed, Birmingham's city centre stations are not the prettiest affairs. The main one, New Street, is an abomination of 1967 hopes and dreams. Although it doesn't have the indignity of a car park being built over it, New Street has that great cathedral of consumerism - a shopping centre atop its platforms. At platform level, it always feels gloomy, barely any natural light penetrates and the booming tannoy announcements, which threaten variously that the train you're waiting for has been cancelled, replaced by a bus or just delayed somewhere up the line, creates the impression of some underground hell. Even the exits are not obvious, taking you onto a crowded and often fast-moving concourse of people. Its all so bland and uninspiring, it provides no sense of having arrived at the heart of the UK's second city.

About the only good thing about the redevelopment of New Street in 1967 is the signal box, now a Grade II listed structure. Admittedly it is not attractive, a monument of concrete that towers far above the tracks and soars upwards into the light and above Navigation Street, providing a striking if slightly odd looking landmark - a good pic here. Pretty it may not be but I like it as a piece of railway architecture and its slightly futuristic look doesn't hint at its function at all.

The good news is that New Street is about to undergo a £500 million face lift, which is in all but name a complete rebuild of the current complex. Gone is the congested and dull concourse, replaced by a brand new plaza flooded with natural light, departure lounges and an altogether much brighter and brilliant place to catch a train. Whether it will deliver remains to be seen or will it in 40 years become as much an eyesore as the current station?

Every now and again I will read a book that speaks to me in profound ways and enthrall and engage in ways that are often difficult to describe or convey with words. Perhaps, its more an emotion, a feeling of having completed a journey and learned something either about myself or human nature at the end of it. Examples of this that immediately spring to mind are Childhood's End by Arthur C Clarke, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor and Dresden by Frederick Taylor. Last week, I added another book to that list - The Final Days by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Trumpeted as the sequel to All the Presidents Men, it is really more a companion commentary on the last days of the Nixon Presidency told from the perspective of those closest to Nixon and serving in the White House. It is an awesome achievement, a thoroughly researched and detailed account of one man's hell and the terrible pain it wrought on a country.

I find the story of Nixon and particularly his fall from grace, endlessly fascinating. Although Nixon has become a figure of hate and one often derided, I personally have begun to admire the man, particularly his dogged determination and immense courage. And I am quite specific in that I admire the man that Nixon was, not the demons that destroyed him and his Presidency. That is the most fascinating enigma about Nixon - the dichotomy between a great statesman and shrewd politician on the one hand and on the other a menacing, dark, cold and self-destructive side to his character that in the latter years of his office destroyed him completely. There are no two ways about it, Nixon's exit from the White House was a tragedy, whether you loathe him or learn to understand who he was.

The Final Days portrays Nixon in a compassionate light. It doesn't avoid the darkness that often consumed him or glorify the painful steps that ended Nixon's term of office. In being an even, balanced account, it allows the reader to form their own judgement although I would challenge anyone to get to the end of this book and not feel some compassion maybe even sympathy for Nixon, a man who I believe in the final analysis was at his heart good although sadly undermined by self-loathing, paranoia and hate. One of the most poignant quotes from Nixon in this book is this: 'although your enemies may hate you they won't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.' Of course, this is exactly what Nixon did. It was most of all his need for revenge, to destroy his enemies, that ultimately led to his own downfall. Another quote from Nixon, which I find powerful and poignant, is a drunken comment to Kissinger after an emotional meeting between the two men, with Nixon broken and distraught, 'Henry, please don't ever tell anyone that I cried and that I was not strong.' Both these excerpts show the fault-lines of the Nixon character quite clearly. The need to appear strong, to be right and never seen as weak, which often manifested itself as vengeance against those who had committed perceived wrongs contrasted with that dark side of his character, the one dominated by self-loathing and self-destruction.

I got my guide to the BBC Proms this week. I am planning to do 7 concerts this year, which is a hefty number, especially at about £20 a time but I feel it is worth it. There is nothing more exciting for me than seeing music, of any sort, being performed live. Particularly for me if it is on a grand orchestral scale and no place I've been to yet is better to enjoy live music than the Royal Albert Hall.

Tomorrow we set off on our holiday on the Grand Union Canal, which I am much looking forward too. Whether I will still be speaking to my friends at the end of it, after spending a week together on a small boat, remains to be seen! The weather does not look at all promising but to hell with it! I am going to have fun and enjoy it whether it lashes down with rain, hail or even snow!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Doing my duty

I've always taken voting very seriously. Since I was first able to vote, which I guess would have been about 13 years ago, I have, as far as I recall, voted in every election whether local or national bar one. Today there are local council elections in England, and elections to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. As always, the media seems largely disinterested in the local votes until of course the votes are counted and then the results will be analysed endlessly for the referendum they will be interpreted as on the present government. For me local elections are not about parties or political personalities on the national stage. I vote on the basis of who I feel will provide the best deal for me locally, irrespective of party colour or affiliation. My feelings are different when I am voting in a General Election, when I am naturally guided by the party dimension and who I want to be in power.

I take voting seriously because I feel it is my democratic right as well as my duty to make my choice of candidate at election. It could be argued endlessly whether the choice of candidates is broad enough or representative of my views or aspirations. Politics like everything else in life is about compromise. There will never be one candidate or one party whose views and policies I will entirely agree with. Then there is the apathy factor. I have to admit I was feeling this on my way home, considering whether I could be bothered to go and vote even though the Polling Station is just across the road. I got angry with myself for thinking that. Of course I should vote. My vote is important; it matters. Whether it really matters or has any actual influence of course is an open question but it matters to me, it counts that I have expressed my choice. If any account is taken of that choice or not is perhaps in my view of the process not critically important, it is the fact that I have expressed that choice. I have exercised my rights and I have participated in the democratic process, flawed as it is. Then there is the counter argument I have to that prevailing thought of why should I bother, it will make no difference and it is this: if we all felt like that democracy wouldn't work, we would have anarchy. Besides, it is not about what everyone else does, its about what I do. My actions are important. My choices matter.

An example of how choices matter is demonstrated in this profile on the BBC News web site of Blair's cabinet of 1997. It shows how the choice of a Labour government in 1997 has profoundly shaped our country and all our lives. Those votes that were made by the electorate, myself included, were important. They mattered because they changed the way our country is governed and have led to one of the most intense periods of constitutional reform in modern times. Not least, amongst these changes, devolved power to Scotland and Wales and reform, albeit piecemeal to the House of Lords. The changes spearheaded by Blair's cabinet of 1997 will leave their mark on the UK long after this government is voted out of office. Although the current trend is to judge the Blair government on the disastrous intervention in Iraq I think history will cast a different light. There is much more that Blair's tenure in Downing Street has achieved, as the article reveals.

In short politics matters. We cannot exist in an apolitical environment; no matter how disinterested people claim to be in politics, it shapes and influences their lives. We are all subject to politics and we all do politics because society cannot exist without it. By extension voting matters. It is important, it is our duty and our responsibility to ensure that we make it count.