Friday, 30 July 2010

On Language

Today I received news that the company I work for are considering paying towards a Spanish language course for me. This got me thinking.

Once upon a time, there was a tribe of cavemen, cavewomen and cavebabies who lived in an nice area that would one day be known as England. They communicated using gestures, facial expressions and grunting which suited them just fine. Until one day, from the mist and darkness that surrounded their home, they heard one of their number shout 'ROCK'. He had returned from the hunt not with mammoth for dinner (which his wife had specifically requested) but with his newly-christened pebble and a word. At roughly the same time, not so far away - just a hop, skip and a jump across the Caveman Channel - another brainy caveman (this time a cavehomme) returned with a similar object and shouted 'PIERRE!'

This happened all over the place, with every brainy cavehombre, caveuomo and caveotoko coming up with a different sound to describe the object in his hands. And lo, language was born, and cavemen all over the world began to argue over the correct words for flowers, stars and mammoths. And it didn't stop there. Oh no. Somewhat more than a few years later, though they had left the caves and eaten all the mammoth, the descendants of said cavemen were coming up with new words to describe various new-fangled technologies that enabled them to communicate their thoughts in 140 characters or less, or even be virtual friends with people they hadn't seen since their sixth birthday party.

Now, take a few seconds to re-read the above and ensure that you've really grasped the thoroughly researched, completely accurate history of language that I've just given, and then consider how strange it is. I am completely fascinated by language - how it evolves, travels and mutates. I'm in awe of its ability to overcome every obstacle thrown at it and how quickly new terms and phrases can become commonplace.

But what intrigues me most is the differences between one language and another. I can't even begin to imagine how it came about. I studied French and Italian at university and even though they share a common ancestor in Latin, they're pretty bloody different. Not as different as French is to Hindi, of course, but you know what I mean; as powerful and resilient as a language is, it's also extremely vulnerable to external influence - hence, I imagine, why Latin didn't survive unaltered after the fall of the Roman Empire and why English-speakers still use words that were originally Persian or German. It's organic and always changing, new words invented and others forgotten.

At this point I stopped thinking, as I'd confused myself, and had a nap.

I must add that my appreciation of the organic, changing nature of language does not, extend to 'refudiate' - Shakespeare may have invented words, but the chances are he meant to invent them, you daft mare.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

On Background Noise

Whenever I walk anywhere I'm inclined to take my music with me. This helps avoid boredom and makes time pass quicker. Alas, last night I left my iPod at work and while I realised almost as soon as I left the office, I couldn't be bothered to walk back up five flights of stairs to get it. After a moment of panic, I decided to continue sans Pod. To soldier on. To bravely go where no member of Generation I has been for a long time. To walk - in silence. For the first few minutes I found myself longing for my trusty portable record collection - I missed how the shuffle feature can make me question my own musical taste. I couldn't decide how fast to walk without the tempo of the song 'now playing' dictating my pace [a slow stroll for a ballad, a power walk for anything more upbeat]. My decision to undergo a whole journey without my protective musical bubble was a rather big one. Had I made a mistake? Should I go back?

Then it hit me. I was reacquainted, all of a sudden, with an old friend; Background Noise. I had feared a silent journey; what I got was anything but. I was surrounded by noise; the briefest snippets of other people's conversations, warnings of [the usual] tube delays, car horns, sirens, white noise from other people's headphones [RAGE]. In short, I could actually hear the city around me - nothing out of the ordinary, nothing you wouldn't hear anywhere else, but a world that has become alien to me since the iPod stole my soul - and I enjoyed it. In particular, I enjoyed eavesdropping, despite the fact that the conversations I overheard all revolved around incredibly mundane topics. "I go away for three weeks. Three weeks. And he's hired some fucking clown to be in my team," said one hard-faced old trout. "I just don't get it though, everything was fine last night but today he's acting like such a moron," whined a chavette into her phone. And they weren't all miserable, I promise - I overheard laughing, joking, reminiscing.

It came as a shock after so long lost in my own little world that you can tune into so much if you're nosey enough. I'd obviously never assumed that the world fell silent the moment I put my earphones in and turned up the volume, but I had forgotten what it's like to listen to the world around me. My Pod-less commute reminded me that there's so much happening here, to so many different people in countless different situations, moods and even languages. I couldn't help but feel dwarfed by the immensity of it and confused by the mind-boggling array of options, choices and possibilities.

And so this evening I tried to resist the temptation to immerse myself in music. As a result, I was able to hear the man with the suitcase shout 'WAIT' as he ran for the tube as the doors were closing. Having heard his cry, I could move out of his way in time. While he did manage to get on, there were a few seconds of acute awkwardness as we waited for the doors that had shut on his leg to open again and let the rest of his body, and suitcase, onto the carriage. It was all a bit Sliding Doors now I come to think of it - perhaps ignoring the world around me allows for as many different possibilities as listening to it.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

On Not Being the One and Only

The phones in our office might as well not be there, they so rarely ring. When the phone on my desk does ring, it's usually my dad. If it's not my dad, then it's someone from another department looking for the man in IT who has the same name as me. I get these fairly often, and do my best not to shout at people as I understand it's an easy mistake to make. However, I find it difficult to find the 'you must get this all the time' line as funny as they do, because yes, I do get it all the time - and it's wearing thin.

To be honest, my issue is not really with the people who ring but the Man With My Name. It's not fair. Everywhere I've lived, studied or worked prior to this place, I've always been the one and only - like Chesney Hawkes [I have no idea if this song exported, but it definitely should have]. I'm struggling to come to terms with this...this...imposter, this pretender to MY throne. What's worse is that I am now the useless TR - the one people ring by accident, the one nobody wants. He's won. He's important. And that's. Not. Fair [cue tantrum].

This morning I googled my name [inspired by Rob's post here]. The first hit is a website of a man who plays the bass, teaches maths, hikes, writes and presents on amateur radio. That's quite a busy life and puts my "wake up - work - [get drunk when not broke] - go home - sleep" daily routine to shame. The next is a book on Amazon, written by someone who spent his life in the SAS before succumbing to mental illness and comitting suicide. He is followed by a financial planner, a litigation lawyer, a designer and illustrator and one of the world's greatest mountainboarders - a list of people who have achieved. It would seem that the Club-TR has many talented, accomplished members*. I got up to page 19, where the hits descended into various mispelt sentences that just happen to spell my name, before accepting that I am nowhere to be found.

My name, however, cannot be blamed for this. It's not the problem. As Shakespeare once said 'That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet'. While I, by any other name, would still do as little and drink as much. And that's why I'm lost in Google.

*This sentence sounds rude in my head. I hope it doesn't read that way. I've no idea how talented the members' members may be, and wouldn't like to speculate.

Monday, 19 July 2010

On Die Welle

I have recently fallen head over heels in love with It's bloody brilliant. At first I did wonder whether it was really worth the money - I can only have two DVDs at home at any one time and, though I watch them soon after they arrive, I'm piss-poor at remembering to post them back. Then I realised, months into my subscription, that I can actually watch hundreds of films ONLINE. This amazed me and I dived headfirst into an ocean of highbrow foreign film. I've nothing against Hollywood; sometimes it's just what I want to see. At other times, however, the snob in me demands cultural sustenance so that I can sound cultured in front of people who don't know me [people that do know me will not be fooled into believing I am cultured by any amount of obscure cinematic knowledge].

Last night I chose Die Welle (The Wave). [See, that was snobbish in itself; I patronised you by putting the translation in brackets as if to say "LOOK AT ME AND MY GERMAN LANGUAGE SKILLS" when in reality I don't speak any German. None at all. You watch, soon I'll be littering my posts with ever so impressive continental and cultural phrases like zeitgeist, milieu and...and...champignon]. So, I chose this film, and I saw that it was good.

In brief, it's about a teacher attempts to liven up a week long project on the dangers of autocratic government with some unusual teaching methods. Apparently this is something that is taught fairly often in German schools and, rather than force his students to sit through another recap of the Third Reich, he moulds the class into a miniature autocratic society. It soon spirals out of control, with tragic results.

This got me thinking. I am, of course, not going to pursue world domination [so you can calm down, Gnetch] and I'm fully aware that autocratic government is a very bad thing. However, it's summer and it's hot, and the heat shortens my temper. It's as if the sun forces all the people that annoy me onto the streets, ready to inconvenience me as I make my way through an already difficult day - suddenly a society with me at the helm seems a little more tempting. As I was between books today, I dedicated this morning's train journey to the development of my manifesto.

My first act would provide a long overdue upgrade to the London Underground network. Fact: it needs air conditioning. Second fact: it irritates me when I see livestock transported along motorways in lorries with more ventilation than I have during my daily commute.

My second act would remove all this economy malarkey which confuses me so. Currencies, exchange rates, inflation, recession...there's simply no need. We'll trade in pebbles, and all pebbles will be equal, and all will then be well.

My third would ban slow walkers from the streets during rush hour. I don't expect everyone to walk at speed at all times, but people should appreciate that when I need to be somewhere, I don't want to match their dawdling pace. The same goes for suitcases and, I'm afraid to say, pushchairs.

My fourth; a nationwide ban on whistling in the workplace and in public spaces. Whistling irritates me, especially when it is tuneless. I'd rather people sang a song as they walked (quickly) down the road - in fact I would reward them for this.

At this point I realised that my policies had begun to infringe on people's civil liberties. Oddly enough, some people actually like whistling. Plus, I suppose it could be considered unfair to keep the dawdlers, mothers with young children and travellers with suitcases cooped up indoors. Who am I to decide these things? Despite having no actual power at all, the slightest, smallest idea of it went straight to my head. Within hours of watching a film detailing the ever-present dangers of autocracy, I had become a tyrant. Stay away from politics T - it's not for you.

Put. The. Manifesto. Down.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

On Being Stuck Between Floors

Today I am grateful that I don't work here.

I don't normally use the lift at work because it's so often out-of-order, which leads me to believe that it must be a death trap. However, on my way into the office this morning I bumped into a colleague [I shall dub her B] who has been on holiday for a week, so I decided to take the lift with her while I updated her on my exciting life, rather than brave the lonely stair climb alone.

The lift was on the ground floor when we arrived; we jumped straight in and pressed the button for floor 5. The lift began to move, only it moved incredibly slowly. Slowly and smoothly. And silently - that's what first aroused my suspicion that something wasn't quite right. The silence. Normally you can hear worrying creaks and groans as it pulls you upwards - sometimes even the odd bang. B said,
"Are we even moving?" I looked through the gap in the door could see a thin line of light disappearing as we left the 3rd floor below us. Then the light stopped disappearing. The lift had stopped, between floors.

In panic, I pressed all available buttons. I didn't care what floor I was taken to as long as I was delivered in one piece, and sooner rather than later. The lift, however, refused to budge, preferring instead to keep us suspended in mid-air [where no-one could hear us scream].

B, I soon discovered, is awful company in a crisis. While I was on the phone to the security desk, she was lecturing me on taking shallower breaths in order to conserve oxygen, which is apparently a very grave concern among people who get stuck in lifts. At this point, it started to get a bit warm and poor B began to feel light-headed because she wasn't breathing deeply enough.

What seemed like hours later [it was actually at least five FULL minutes, during which B spoke incessantly of plunging to our deaths and the risk of decapitation should we have to climb out] we heard Mr Health & Safety shout, "Is there anyone in the lift?!"

The voice of an angel.

"YES! HELP US! PLEASE!" we replied in chorus.

"Stand away from the doors", he said, "I'm going to have to RELEASE THE HYDRAULICS to get you down." We gazed at each other in disbelief, clutching the wooden railing at the side until our knuckles were white. Release the hydraulics? You mean release the mechanism that is holding us in place? ARE YOU SANE? And then the lift began to bounce. I jest not - they had to bounce us down, a metre at a time. They'd release the hydraulics, the lift would drop, stop, bounce like it was suspended on a rubber band, and then repeat. Repeat. Repeat. I'd reached a state of such instense panic by this point that my memory fades. Two floors later [read: many, many bounces] and the doors were finally forced open.

We were free. The cool air washed over me, relief was all I could feel. The stairs had never looked so inviting - each step was like reacquainting myself with an old, trustworthy, sensible and safe friend. I was saved. I am never setting foot inside that baked-bean tin on a string ever again.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

On Realising That All Is Not Doom & Gloom

It seems that my posts have been a little pessismistic and bitter of late. I can't hide the fact that I am naturally inclined towards melancholy, bitterness and the foulest of bad moods, but at the same time I don't want you to think that I'm always such a miserable bastard.

On Friday I went to the Barbican Centre to see Catalyst Theatre's Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe. As you can imagine, it's not the most joyful of stories - the man led a grim, miserable life. It was however, an absolutely fantastic production. Combine the funky steampunk costumes, gothic make-up and frequent nods to Poe's poetry and stories with my leaning towards the gloomier side of life, and it's clear this was always going to be something I'd love.

Despite the gothic feast that was Nevermore, Friday wasn't all doom and gloom. Before getting to the Barbican, N and myself stopped off in Postman's Park, a five minute walk away from St Paul's Cathedral. I'd never been before, although those of you who have seen the film Closer may recognise it. It was a graveyard until the late 1800s, when it was converted to a public park [you can still see some of the old gravestones stacked up around the edge]. It's a beautiful space surrounded on all sides by high buildings - an oasis in the middle of the City.

In 1900 it became home to George Frederic Watts' Memorial To Heroic Self Sacrifice. Watts had long campaigned for a monument to the heroic deeds of ordinary people - in a city where you can barely turn a corner without coming face-to-face with a commemoration of military victory or a statue of a dead monarch, this was an unusual request. However, with considerable determination, he got his way - one wall of the park is taken up by a memorial to ordinary people who gave their lives in order to save another's - and it's beautiful. Each person has a ceramic plaque with their name, age, the date they died and the manner in which it happened. It's quite an emotional read that includes a servant saving her master's children from a burning building, an actress using her own dress to put out the flames engulfing her co-star's clothes and a little boy saving his brother from being run over

Admittedly this may sound quite depressing, but it had the opposite effect on me. In this day and age it's all too easy to look after number one, to keep your head down, eyes forward and never spare a thought for anyone else. Sometimes, it's nice to be reminded that there is more to life than that - that there are people out there who will risk everything for someone else. I walked away from Postman's Park with a refreshed view of the society I live in, a new respect for humanity and, unusually, a smile on my face.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

On Gender Stereotypes

The Analyst has challenged me to reveal ten ways in which my behaviour defies the socially accepted stereotype of how a man should act. This, I think, will be easy.

1 - I know almost all of the words to Pretty Woman (the whole film, not just the song). I blame my mother for this - she'd put the video on to keep me and my brother quiet - we were both easily subdued by anything on the TV, and this way she got to drool over Richard Gere. My favourite lines include "Cinder-fucking-rella" and "Big mistake, huge." This also applied to Sister Act and Grease.

2 - I love shoes. I get sad when I can't afford them, and overjoyed when somebody buys me a pair. The pointier the better. I also appreciate brogues. I don't limit my appreciation to smart shoes; I am equally comfortable in any one of my six pairs of ripped Converses.

3 - N once had to turn off the TV during Schindler's list. My sobbing had reached worrying heights, and I'd only tuned in halfway through. It's that bit with the actors and the people they portrayed at the end, laying stones on Schindler's grave. I'm welling up as I type.

4 - I once came [very] close to tears and threw a huge strop because I couldn't find one of my socks. I was in a tent at Download Festival. Surrounded as I was by metalheads and hardcore rockers, I can safely say this was one of my least manly moments.

5 - If I see the words 'action-packed' and, to a lesser extent, 'thriller' in a film's write-up I probably won't watch it. I'll get my Pretty Woman DVD instead.

6 - I nag, almost constantly. I'm neither laidback nor easygoing. I'm neurotic, paranoid and will nag and mother people to make myself feel better. "Stop acting like a child...Don't stand so close to the edge of the platform...Don't run in the snow...Do you have to have your I-Pod on so loud?" Sometimes I wonder how I have any friends left...

7 - I had a troll collection when I was younger *hides face in shame*.

8 - I've touched on this before, but my favourite shop is Accessorize, being full of sparkly, shiny, jangly things. I can spend ages in there, despite the spelling.

9 - Once upon a time, the telly was broken. N's mum taught me how to knit. I wasn't very good, but with some help I did manage to produce a rather funky i-Phone holder that lasted for around three weeks before starting to unravel. Good times.

10 - I can't cook food on a barbeque. The realm of manly outdoor cooking is completely alien to me with its fire, fuel and slabs of meat. I mean I struggle enough with an oven, I need to learn to walk before I can run.

So there you have it. A poor excuse for a man. Masculinity is shaking its head in shame.
[As I've mentioned before, my tag goes out to any one who wants it! If you like it (this one's a good one, I think) take it, I insist.]

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

On 2020

Lauren from Trash Rock Tour thinks I'm going places. Her faith in me has warmed my stone cold heart and, in return, I'm to write a post on where I think I'll be in ten years' time. This is a tough one. Not least because [yes, here I go again] I'm not convinced I'll make it past 2012 thanks to the bloody Mayan calendar. However, for the sake of this post I'll put my fears aside and imagine where I'll be in ten years.

~~~Start Dream Sequence~~~

I'll be 35. Given my complete lack of drive and intense fear of the unknown, I'll probably be in the same job I'm in now. Except I'll know EVERYTHING there is to know about the production and international sale of children's board books, and so perhaps be headhunted. Should that happen, I'd like a bit more money please. And a private office with a view of the Thames. And a gold-plated business card carrier so I can wow people while networking. So that's the plan, and with all the pounds and pennies from the new job struggling to find room in my cramped bank account, I'll splash out on a vintage car, bespoke designer suits, a Victorian townhouse and a husky. My life will be all kinds of wonderful.

~~~End Dream Sequence~~~

Alas; I find it difficult to be optimistic. I should also stress that I'm not completely vain and materialistic. The above is more a wishlist than an expectation. Part of me thinks it's dangerous to expect too much, because so much that can happen to alter events is out of my control. However, neither do I think that it's unwise to think about your ideal life, no matter how far out of reach it might seem. Otherwise, I'd have nothing to strive for and would plummet, head first, into despair. Suffice it to say that I'll be happy if I'm still around and still surrounded by the people closest to me. That way, even if 2020 finds me living in a hovel, at least I'll be able to take some comfort in the fact that the most important thing is taken care of, and that there will be someone around to bring me painkillers and hangover cures after messy nights out. No, I have no plans to grow old gracefully.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

On History Repeating Itself

On Friday, N accompanied me to the Tate Britain, although the Philistine would only agree to go if I promised to buy him a burger. The gallery is currently hosting an exhibition called Rude Britannia that spans 500 years' worth of British caricature, satire and comic art. I'd decided, being all cultured and stuff, that I wanted to see it. The weird and wonderful collection gives an insight into the development of caricature and comic art in Britain and includes some iconic pieces, from Hogarth's Gin Lane to the Margaret Thatcher puppet from Spitting Image. Plenty to get your teeth into, then [and I don't mean N's burger].

But what set me thinking, what I remember most, wasn't one of the bigger pieces. It's not one of the works plastered over the promotional literature and websites. It's not even sold as a postcard in the giftshop. It was a cartoon from the 18th June 1842 edition of 19th century periodical The Penny Satirist, if the notes hurriedly typed into my phone are correct. The cartoon showed John Bull (Britain) beset by vultures. Around one of his ankles was a chain, restricting his movement and keeping him tied down, representing something that's become an all-too-familiar a term of late: NATIONAL DEBT.

I know I'm prone to looking backwards rather than forwards. I admit that I harp on about the past and ancestry and our bleak future too often, but I can't help it.

The cartoon is nearly 200 years old, yet it depicts the UK in what seems like the same financial situation as it is now - up to its neck in debt. Times have changed, and I live in a very different country to the Britain of the 1800s [thank fuck], but some things remain constant. What does this mean? Does history repeat itself? Let's hope not. Are the politicians of today too ignorant of past political errors to avoid them recurring? Like they care, as long as they have their second homes [Bitter much TbR?]. Is resistance to debt futile? Of course, debt can eat your soul.

What this also highlights is my complete lack of understanding when faced with anything even remotely linked to economics. Anyone with a half decent understanding of how the markets work could probably tell me - in very simple terms of course, 'cos I'm not too bright - that these things do work in cycles, peaks of plenty followed by troughs of debt and misery, much like where we are at the moment.

I don't know the answer, but I would like to say thank you to the good people of the Tate Britain for making me feel far less concerned about owing money on my credit card. I'm a child of my society, of my time. Of course I'm in debt, History made me do it.

"And if History jumped off a bridge, would you follow?"

Shut up.