Tuesday, 31 August 2010

On A Bird's Eye View

It's two weeks before Christmas, and my dad has just told me what he's bought for my aunt and uncle; a microlight flight.

"Ha." I say, grinning. "Nice one. I would hate that. HATE it." In hindsight, this was a mistake, because it convinced my dad that booking me my very own microlight flight would be a really funny thing to do. I should know better by now; admitting any kind of weakness or vulnerability will never escape unpunished. Come Christmas morning, impressed I was not as I peeled open the envelope to find a voucher 'congratulating' me on my first flight in what I've since heard described as 'a lawnmower engine with wings'. I joked about the need to sort out my Last Will and Testament before going, but in all honesty that was the least of my worries. My biggest fear was actually fainting on the way up and spending the whole flight unconcious, dribbling over the edge. With a father like mine, I would never hear the end of it.

Well, yesterday, I did it. I spent 20 minutes flying over an immense patchwork quilt of fields, gardens, playgrounds, car parks and forests. On one side was the green Essex countryside, stretching towards the horizon, on the other the grey urban sprawl of London. I saw the Thames flowing lazily past busy docks, under bridges and then snaking around Canary Wharf, out of view and on towards Westminster, the sunlight dancing on its surface.

I have been in a plane before, but this was different. For a start it's lower, and smaller. You're exposed to the elements and your view is more or less unimpaired. I realise now that my perception of the geography of the region in which I live was incredibly skewed. I had no idea where we were flying until I could pinpoint landmarks; a windmill, a shopping centre, a pier or a station.

It didn't just sort out my abismal sense of direction, but also gave me a renewed respect for the world around us and how it works. I mean the man-made stuff, the logistics. We're so dependent on things that we don't know exist or take for granted - things like water treatment plants or electricity grids. Huge roads and railway lines carving their way through town and countryside. Tiny little cars whizzing around tiny little roundabouts, giving way at tiny little junctions. So many connections, exchanges, rules, systems. And that's just infrastructure; concrete, tactile and in-your-face. As soon as I started thinking about all the hundreds of houses, all the thousands of people, all the millions of thoughts, actions and conversations, my head was ready to explode.

And this was just a miniscule glimpse of part of the world; a tiny snapshot in an immense collage of millions of others, no one the same as any other. At one point we flew over a huge container ship waiting to be unloaded at the docks - a ship that probably contained goods from all over the world - from faraway lands with their very own roads, landmarks and fathers who think it's amusing to scare the shit out of their first-born sons.

I've always thought an experience like this would make me feel powerful, but it had the opposite effect. Rather than making the most of being on top of the world, I felt lucky to be living in it.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

On A Wake-up Call

I have a feeling I'm going to shoot myself in the foot here. You see, I've never written about what I'm going to write about today for a reason. That reason is that I'm very grateful to the people who read what I write, and I really don't want to depress the fuck out of you, or leave you thinking that I should man up and stop whining about my piddly little problems. But it's been a funny week - three nights out on the town have left me with little capacity for rational or creative thought so I'm left with nothing to work with but what's on my mind right now which isn't, unfortunately, particularly uplifting. Consider also the fact that for the last hour I've been listening to a good-mood-wrecking mixture of Damien Rice, Radiohead and a sprinkling of Slipknot and you'll realise that I am far from being a happy bunny.

On Wednesday, the mighty Fulham FC beat Port Vale 6 goals to 0 to advance into the third round of the Carling Cup. Money woes owing to the aforementioned string of late nights had prevented me from attending, so I spent the night in front of the telly, with my mother, living on the edge. My mum has multiple sclerosis which, as you may know, is pretty rough. Every week a physiotherapist visits to discuss how she's getting on and force her to do exercises. In an effort to tear my eyes from one of the gruesome hospital dramas that make up a large part of mum's staple TV viewing, I asked her how the physio went. She said she'd told the nurse, for the first time, about these shooting pains she gets in her face. They're completely unpredictable and, according to the physio, are on a list of warning signs that can lead to suicide among MS sufferers.

Fear not, there's no danger of that happening and that's not where this post is going, but finding out how bad these pains can be did come as a shock. My mum has had them for years and years and as much as I hate saying this, I'd become almost completely desensitised. I'd grown so used to seeing it happen that I didn't react to it like I once did - in fact, I barely reacted at all. But hearing what the physio said knocked me for six. The fact is, I'm able to detach myself, while my mum is stuck with it and I feel incredibly guilty for letting myself get to the point where I'd just stopped paying attention. So while she has been putting up with something that can be bad enough to push people over the edge, I was, basically, ignoring it. I'm not a complete bastard though, I promise. It just became normal. As normal as hearing someone sneeze, or something like that.

It's a difficult situation; to an extent you have to build up some sort of resistance. If the poor cow burst into tears every time she was affected by one of the many symptoms of the MS, she'd flood the house. And it's the same for me, my dad and my brother; it wouldn't be right for us to cause a massive fuss every time something happened, either. I do feel, however, that I'd taken my eye off the ball of late, I'd got a bit too relaxed. As it turns out, I suppose the lightning bolt from the physio was just what I needed. I should thank her - thank her for scaring the living shit out of me and reminding me of the seriousness of my mum's condition. My mum is strong, and she's brave and there's not much I can do to help her. I can, however, make sure I'm actually paying attention. I can make sure I don't forget how tough things can be for her. And I can make sure she knows that.

I can also turn Radiohead off, as I feel less miserable now. I believe that's called catharsis?

Monday, 23 August 2010

On Science

DISCLAIMER: Abandon hope all ye who continue, for what follows is sure to be complete gibberish.

I can't sleep. During my week off I would happily have nodded off at ten o'clock every night. Now that I have to start getting up early again, I've been hit with a bout of insomnia. Like Faithless, I can't get no sleep.

So, rather than allow itself to fall into sleep's sweet embrace, my mind has been racing, darting from one bizarre thought to the next. For a while, I tried translating random sentences into French and Italian, then stopped in case the family began to worry about the multilingual [and in all likelihood grammatically incorrect] whisperings emanating from their firstborn's dark bedroom. Instead, I opened the curtains and looked out at the sky. At first I could only see three stars, but, when after staring at one for a while, more emerged from the darkness until there were...more. Loads of the little blighters, all twinkling away, sometimes visible, sometimes not.

At times like this [and by 'this' I mean past my bedtime and incapable of any logical thought] I think we know too much. There was a time when stars were there to be wished upon, to navigate by and to predict the future for us. They were dot-to-dot depictions of famous heroes and monsters. Stories written across the sky. They were 'the heavens'. Nowadays, they're giant balls of gas. Lovely. Where's the romance in that? Where's the mystery? I'm concerned, you see, that science is sucking the fun out of the world around us when to be honest I'd settle for the Lion King Theory on Astronomy [which states, if I remember correctly, that stars are dead lions in the sky]. Even that's better than a gasball, a celestial fart.

And it doesn't stop at the stars, which I seem to be somewhat obsessed with lately. Mankind has always tried to make sense of things that seemed beyond understanding. The Ancient Greeks explained the seasons with a story involving a kidnapping, a mother's heartache and a glimmer of hope at the end. Thunder in Scandinavia was the crash of Thor's hammer, and Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway was a bridge to Scotland for, well, giants. Now it's an interesting volcanic rock formation. The actual science behind all of these things seems sterile in comparison to colourful, emotive myths and legends. It's a bit like opening a really nicely wrapped present to find something really quite dull inside.

But I suppose that's because I don't have a scientific mind. I really don't. I don't think I'm bright enough and I'm definitely too easily distracted. I'm sure those that are lucky enough to possess an interest in the real world think I'm being ridiculous - which is completely right, I am ridiculous. Science is an amazing thing; it has worked miracles, saved countless lives and even enabled me to bore you all with this post. It just doesn't seem as much fun to my childish, easily-confused little mind. So scientists, you intelligent and rational folk you, please accept my thanks for all your hard graft. I'll continue to enjoy the benefits you bring, but please don't be offended if I still refuse to walk under ladders, occasionally read my horoscope and secretly believe that fairies live at the end of my garden.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

On Time Off

I have been dreading tomorrow all week. Today is my last day of freedom, my last day without work.

I've had a week off. What fun activities have I participated in? Which interesting places have I visited? None. My week was filled with a glorious nothingness; a lazy, slow-moving, so-chilled-I'm-frozen, so-relaxed-I'm-comatose week to break up the monotony of months in employment.

I'll admit that 'nothingness' is a stretch - I did see friends and even, on the odd occasion, leave the house - but you understand the point I'm trying to make, I think. For the past five days I have been so far removed from my usual daily routine that I've lost contact with the outside world. Like Major Tom, I am sitting in a tin can and Ground Control can't reach me. Because I'm drifting. That's how it feels. I haven't had to fight my way through King's Cross in five whole days (nine, if you count the weekends). I haven't woken up to the stomach-churning realisation that I should already be on a train and not in my bed. And, as I haven't passed any of the legions of people giving out free newspapers, I'm even a bit confused as to what's happening in the world. I am cut-off. Completely.

Until tomorrow morning, when the dance begins again. I'm a bit nervous of the state my inbox will be in when I get back to work. I'm also worried about not getting up on time. However, what I'm most concerned about is the fact that my time in exile has left me with a much slower walk. How am I to keep up with the crowds of commuters with this new dawdle I've developed? I suppose I can just pretend to be a tourist until I get back up to speed - that will also give me time to brush up on tutting at people when they stop in front of me. So, here we go, out of bed and back to reality.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

On Villainy

The BBC recently produced a modern take on the Sherlock Holmes stories. It's fantastic; almost everyone I know has watched it, and loved it. It's only three episodes long [with more to come next year] and I don't think I'll be spoiling the story for anyone if I tell you that in the last episode Sherlock Holmes' arch-nemesis Moriarty makes his first appearence. True to form, the mad little Scotsman has now become my favourite character. He's absolutely insane. Last week, I was talking about my intense admiration for him to my colleague [informing her that I shall henceforth be known as Tomiarty] when I was struck by the realisation that I never root for the good guys. I almost always prefer the characters I'm supposed to hate. Why do I set myself up for such disappointment? Because let's be honest, the bad guys are never going to win, but despite the tall odds, I've always found myself more attached to them.

For a long time my favourite book was Les Liaisons Dangereuses, whose protagonists the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, two bored, devious French aristocrats, amuse themselves by ruining other people's honour and reputations. They are incredibly nasty and sound like they would be too much fun on a night out. I was in awe of them and their evil games, of their heartlessness and complete lack of consideration of the consequences that befall the people they seduce.

Then I discovered Dracula, and decided I wanted him to be my new best friend. He's brutal, dark and from another time. I read this before vampires became brooding, sensitive and sexy and, while both approaches have their merits, Bram Stoker's vision is infinitely more frightening than that ginger bird in Twilight. I sympathised with him, I did. I understood his yearning for the former glory of his house, and his struggle to find a place in the modern world. The poor bloke - yes he kills people and drinks their blood, but come on, give him a break; he's got a lot on his mind.

Come to think of it, before I even knew these books existed I was devouring the Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. I've lost count of how many times I've read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. My favourite part was not when Aslan is resurrected [yawn] or when the Pevensies are crowned at Cair Paravel [snore] but when the White Witch calls all the ghosts, witches and monsters to fight for her cause. It read like a list, a list of creatures I'd never even heard of before; I looked up 'incubus' in the dictionary and couldn't sleep for a week afterwards. Her insane jealousy and megalomania makes her, in my opinion, one of the best villains ever written.

I tend to find the good guys quite boring. During the Lord of the Rings trilogy I developed such a hatred of the scences with Frodo and Sam that I think I could have given Sauron a run for his money. However, this isn't always the case. Take Batman for example - he's a crimefighter, a do-gooder but I like him. I like him because he's motivated by revenge and loss. This is good - not for him, but for me. I think perhaps this is what I look for - some sort of imbalance, or motivation other than 'I want everybody to live happily ever after. All you need is love." Yes, I think that's it. Show me a character driven by the greater good or the fate of humankind and I'll tell you to jog on. Show me somebody driven by greed, power, revenge or guilt and I'll be cheering from the sidelines, albeit with the realistic assumption that I'm not on the winning team.

PS Please note that my admiration for the bad guys does not extend to reality. I don't support real evil doers, only made up ones.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

On Stars

When I was young, my nan used to come and visit from her house in Fulham. She would sit in the garden for half an hour each evening, looking up at stars, and tell me how many more there were here than she was used to. I thought this was probably bollocks, until a random road trip with N in Cagliari allowed me to see the night sky as it should be seen. It's incredible, really. Absolutely mental. There are so many more stars up there than I can ever see at home. I can see about two. Well, that's a slight exaggeration - I can always see Orion, and the constellation that looks like a saucepan, but that's about it.

There was a great deal of talk last week about a spetacular meteor shower that was supposed to have been visible all over the UK. As I'm normally unable to appreciate the Great Big Light Show In The Sky, I was really quite up for it. And I wasn't the only one; the Facebook status of one of my brother's friends read:
"Sitting in the garden watching the meteor shower with a glass of baileys."

I'll put my surprise at his choice of tipple to one side for now, and concentrate on the biggest issue I have with this here status. You see, we live under the flight path to London Stansted and I believe my brother's friend was talking rubbish. He was watching aeroplanes, not comets. That's the only explanation I can offer. I looked for the meteors myself and there was nothing there. Nothing at all.

As I drunkenly made my way home on Thursday night, beered up and ready for bed, I stopped and had a look. Nothing. 'Perhaps it's a quiet period,' I thought, 'A dry spell.' I was torn between my desire to get home and the hope of seeing a shooting star. Anyone in possession of common sense would have made a choice; either keep walking or keep staring at the stars. I, on the other hand, decided on a compromise: I strode forward with my head bent right back looking up at the sky. In this way I could ensure that I would reach home at a decent hour without having to miss out. Looking back, it's nothing short of a miracle that I made it home in one piece, as I had no idea what was in front of me; I could only be sure that there was absolutely sod all above me. It's so unreasonable; I risked my life for those bloody comets and they didn't even have the decency to show up. That's it, Night Sky, we're done.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

On iDependence

My ongoing battle with my iPod has been well documented, but I've always been fond of my iPhone, with which I've experienced very few problems. At times I've even been proud of the little fellow; as I was when it transformed a dreadfully ordinary daytime shot of the Thames into the psychadelic masterpiece above. Alas, it would seem that this period of plain sailing has been nothing but a honeymoon period. The calm before the storm. There isn't actually anything wrong with my phone - my worries stem from a concern that it's too advanced. It knows too much.

Yesterday was a prime example. Having reconciled with my great love, Beer, and put our lovers' tiff behind us, I rang N after work to see if he fancied a pint. "Sure," he said, "where?" I was in Farringdon, N works in Old Street - there was about a mile between us. I said I'd come to him, as his office is in close proximity to très-trendy Shoreditch. Alas, I then made a grave error; I muttered the moronic phrase "I'll use my map app to figure out how to get there." BOOM. I had exposed my vulnerability. My iPhone, realising my pathetic dependence on it, swiftly - and smugly - switched itself off. The official reason given was low battery - but I know this to be untrue. The iPhone knew that without its knowledge of life, the universe and everything, I was up shit creek without a paddle.

My desperate attempts to turn it back on failed and I descended into a blind panic. My vision blurred, my head was pounding with the noise of other commuters chattering into their better-behaved mobile phones. Cursing the phone with a string of four letter words that turned the air around me blue, I darted towards a phone box; a red beacon of hope, so often ignored. I threw the door open, grabbed the phone and inserted 50p.
"60p minimum", said the little screen. "YOU BASTARD. YOU BIG RED GREEDY BASTARD." I thought. There, under the gaze of several prostitutes staring down from postcards stuck on the walls, I rifled through my ManBag for change. Success. Another pound. I rang N. Typically, there was no answer. As the money remaining decreased at an incredible speed, I left a rushed message explaining the situation and asked him to be patient - I would get there, I needed the beer - but I might be late as I had no idea where I was.

Leaving the phonebox behind, I began my trek. I happened across a streetmap showing my current location and I did something I haven't done in a long time - I read the map and, not knowing where the next map would be, I commited the street names to memory. It felt strange - I may as well have been using a compass or navigating my course by the stars. But I did it. Despite having to revert to such primitive techniques as using my own initiative, I found my way to Old Street Station where N was waiting with a pint of sweet amber nectar.

So in your face, smug iPhone, in your face. I don't need you. I love you, and enjoy having you - but I don't need you. Now, kindly update me on what's been happening in the world, check my e-mail, warn me of any tube delays and suggest a decent restaurant within 2 miles. Much obliged.
PS I've just responded to about two weeks' worth of comments on previous posts - sincerest apologies, I wasn't ignoring them! PROMISE!

Sunday, 1 August 2010

On Beer

Dearest Beer,

We've known each other for longer than I care to remember. You've stuck by me through thick and thin, through good times and bad - and I'll never forget that. You might not like what I'm about to say, but what sort of friend would I be if I only ever told you things that you want to hear? No, I have to get this off my chest.

I often find myself thinking about the good times we've shared - all the beer gardens, gigs and parties. But lately, Beer, you've changed. It's hard to put my finger on exactly how, but I'm starting to get the impression that you really don't like me. Take last night for example, I thought we were getting on well. I was enjoying myself and thought you were too. So why have you landed me with this god-awful headache? Are you happy that I spent this morning either wrapped around the toilet bowl or hanging my head out of the car window? Was it your intention to render me unable to stand up without feeling an urgent need to vomit? What did I do to you to deserve this? You were never this bad, before. We used to be so happy, but this vengefulness and spite you have exhibited of late is getting too much for me to bear.

I'll be brutally honest, else what's the point in even writing this. I'm thinking of leaving you. There was a time, not so long ago, in which I couldn't have lived without you - but you're not the only one in my life now. I could spend more time with Wine, perhaps. We've met a few occasions and get on well enough - though it is generally quieter, restrained and more sophisticated than when you and I are together. Or Whisky, although I'm not sure I could handle the aggression all the time. Whisky is mad. This is what upsets me most; we're pretty much perfect for each other, you and I. I don't want to abandon you but you're pushing me away and I just don't have the energy to fight back.

Please - I beg you - let me know whether there's any chance we can return to the fun-filled, carefree days of my youth. Perhaps we can still make this work? I'm willing to try, if you are.

With love,


PS As I'm already writing to you, I wonder if you could stop doing that thing where you make me forget everything. It's not on. I would have liked a few memories of my cousin's wedding reception to cherish but you wouldn't even give me that, would you? Selfish bastard.