Monday, 25 October 2010

On The Great Outdoors

I am, and always will be, a townie. While I appreciate that the countryside can be beautiful, peaceful and calming, it's really not for me; I much prefer the bright lights and loud noises of the city. So when N decided to arrange a camping trip for his birthday, I was decidedly underawed.

It wasn't, forunately, as bad as I thought; I had a fantastic weekend and I think I managed quite well without the internet, TV and...walls. Actually, that's a complete lie, and I respect you too much to lie to you. I'm sorry. The truth: I was completely rubbish and should not be allowed out of the concrete jungle. Bear Grylls I am not. Setting up tents, for a start, is a chore - especially when the ground beneath is so muddy you can hardly stand. That's something I like about houses; they generally come pre-assembled, ready and fit for habitation. Not so the tent, which requires assembly then reveals a sizeable insect community that has somehow survived those long months in the garden shed.

The first night was rainy, cold and dark and I was incredibly, stupidly inebriated. Towards the end of the night, the end of my night anyway, the group realised that I'd been missing for 25 minutes, and a search party was sent forth. N found me in the toilet block, hugging the hand-drier for warmth and escorted me back to the tents. I went to bed - not to sleep, just to lie with eyes wide open wondering what exactly was walking around outside. I wasn't expecting a bear or anything, but when you're out of your comfort zone, even badgers start to seem menacing.

The second night was less rainy, less cold and less dark. This was mostly because we figured out how to turn the electricity on and so the 'get back to nature' element of our camping trip went straight out of the window. Electricity gave us light. It gave us heat. We stole a picnic bench and installed it in our gazebo. We even, in the true hunting and gathering spirit of our country-dwelling ancestors, ordered a Chinese takeaway. In short, we may as well have booked a hotel.

I'm not meant for the great outdoors. I'll never be able to do without walls, a bed, central heating. I'm too attached these creature comforts and little luxuries to find sleeping on the floor enjoyable. Give me supermarkets that don't close, a mind-boggling transport network and brick, glass and steel. I don't care if I can't see the stars or see through the exhaust fumes. Just don't make me sleep outside again; the badgers might get me.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

On My Un-Futuristic Life

I know that, coming from someone who goes on and on about nostalgia, the past and his difficult relationship with technology, this post may come across hypocritical.

The building I work in is a converted Victorian warehouse. I like this very much; I like how it seems to have been designed to confuse you, with floors that are completely bypassed by some of the staircases, basements nobody tells you about and odd little storage rooms that you have to crawl into because the ceilings are so low. Yesterday, when I returned to the building after my daily lunchtime stroll along Regent's Canal, the Star Wars theme was blaring from the post room. It seemed incredibly out of place, and I began to feel nostalgic - only for the future.

Bear with me, I will wrestle some sense out of the last sentence if it's the last thing I do. You see when I was growing up, this wasn't how I expected the future to be. And a lot of my expectations about what the world would be like when I was an adult were shaped by things like Star Wars. No, I didn't think I'd be living in space, but I imagined things would be somewhat more advanced than they are.

I'm not asking for much. I don't need to float around in a galaxy far, far away. I'd settle for a lift that works. I don't even need a spaceship with hyperdrive capabilities that can fly from one end of the universe to the other in seconds. I would like a tube train that can deliver me to work without running out of breath and sitting in a tunnel for 15 minutes while it recharges its batteries*. OK, I wouldn't say no if somebody offered me an omniscient little robot that can play videos, pick locks, electrocute people and repair machinery. But I do have an iPhone and there's probably apps for all these things already.

Perhaps I should be grateful - my boss, for example, is actually quite a nice bloke and not a mask-wearing tyrant who could kill me by waving at me. It's just if you'd asked 6-year old Tom what the world would be like in 2010 the response would probably have involved hoverboots, lasars and teleportation. After a period in which technology seemed to race forward at a rate of knots, spewing out world-changing inventions like the interweb and mobile phones like there was no tomorrow, doesn't it seem a bit quiet?

Perhaps I'm ignoring important developments. I do spend most of my day in a Victorian warehouse after all, the building would probably reject any technological development - which is perhaps why the lift doesn't work. It's like The Haunting. Please feel free to prove me wrong and restore what little faith I once had in technology. In the meantime, I'm off camping for the weekend (in Dorset, not the Dagobah System).

*Admittedly is nothing compared to the poor souls stuck on the Jubilee and Victoria lines this week.

Monday, 18 October 2010

On Faith-a-Faith-a-Faith

Yes, that was a George Michael reference and yes, this is a post on religion. Well, my experience with religion. I'll do my best not to offend, which certainly isn't my intention, I've just been thinking due to not being able to sleep.

I've mentioned before, in passing, that I'm atheist. While I fully respect others' right to believe in something higher, it's not something I can really convince myself to believe. It hasn't always been this way; I grew up Roman Catholic. I was baptised and confirmed, I went to Catholic primary and secondary schools - I was even an altar boy until someone spilt candle wax in my hair. God, in short, was everywhere when I was growing up.

And then, all of a sudden, he wasn't. I'm not sure what it was, but all of a sudden, I no longer believed what I was being taught, in what I was saying. A lot of it is due to the lifestyle I lead being completely at odds with Catholic doctrine, but it wasn't only that. Whatever belief I had once possessed, vanished. I stopped paying and I stopped going to church. I stopped believing. *

Since then, apart from christenings, weddings and funerals, I've only been to a church once. It was when my mum rang me to tell me she was ill. I'm not sure why, but I decided the best course of action would be to jump on the bus and go to the church. I was probably looking for an answer, an explanation. I don't know really, it's a bit blurry. Anyway, when I arrived 20 minutes later, the church was locked. In my emotional state I decided that, if there was a supreme being watching over us, he evidently didn't have any time for me. [Don't worry; I do know this is stupid. For a start, you could argue that I'd already stopped believing in him so a trip to church was a bit pointless in the first place. Secondly, if God does exist, he's got his hands full and can't really take on management of the logistics and opening hours of his many houses.]

The reason I'm thinking about this now, is that I can't sleep and my mind is wandering. To be more specific, it's wandering to the night before my French GCSE exam. I remember not being able to sleep then, and praying for some shuteye and an easy exam the next day. Even now, when I'm nervous, anxious or frightened, part of me still attempts to contact a higher being to ask for help. It's what I did this morning. I almost prayed that an email I sent on Friday would not have the complicated consequences I've been afraid of all weekend.

Now, that's not the wax-covered altar boy within trying to get out. It's not an indication of suppressed religious belief. I think it's a comfort mechanism. It's one of the things I miss about having a faith; that in times of trouble, [I'm fighting the urge to say 'Mother Mary comes to me'] you have somewhere to turn - even if the problem you're fretting over is completely trivial. Even now, despite my avowed disbelief, I wear a St Christopher when I go on long journeys. Am I hoping that the patron saint of travellers will ward off any danger on my route? Perhaps. More likely though, is that it comforts me. Things like this make me feel better, like touching wood when I tempt fate.

I do hope I haven't offended anyone with my insomnia-fuelled drivel this morning. As I said at the beginning, I fully respect people's right to believe whatever they want, and part of me envies that belief, too. I look at my mum, and everything she's been through, and admire her ability to keep believing. It's just for me, it has never quite fit. That's why when people from the church come to give my mum the Eucharist on a Sunday I always decline when they offer. Maybe it would make me feel better if I accepted, but what's the point of going through the motions when there's no belief attached? What's the point in praying when I don't believe anyone is listening? Surely that's more disrespectful, if anything.

* I am now unable to sleep, and have Journey's Don't Stop Believing stuck in my head. This will not be a good day.

Monday, 11 October 2010

On Globalisation

That's a sausage on my plate, not a huge turd. Honest.

I return, after what seems like an age, to the blogosphere. I've been away and unable to post; I spent last week in Frankfurt, Germany at the annual book fair. While the lack of Internet access initially traumatised me, I've returned from the fair somewhat inspired, and, unfortunately, with a dose of man-flu. I'm writing from my bed, a cup of tea of my left, hot water bottle to my right and the plate that once held my peanut butter sandwich somewhere on the floor. While I intend to drag this out for maximum sympathy, any magical remedies would be highly appreciated.

Back to the book fair. My days there consisted of the following; waking up late and running down to breakfast. Jumping on the train to the fair. Walking MILES to our stand and setting up our books. At 9, the first customers would arrive, and half-hour long meetings continue until 6. Every half an hour I'd repeat the same things, about the same books, sitting in the same chair. The only thing that changed was the face sitting in front of me.

This sounds, of course, incredibly dull and it can get really difficult. But I was saved from complete mental shutdown by my love of talking to people. Though I have embraced the Internet of late, e-mails really are no substitute for meeting someone face-to-face. Furthermore, the people I talk to come from all over the world. Each brings with them something of the place they come from; not a present for me, unfortunately, but a quirk, a mannerism, a way of speaking or acting that sets them apart from the people who sat in that seat before them.

Some live up to national stereotypes; an Italian arriving late, shouting apologies while kissing both cheeks. The French, with that air of class and aloofness, dressed impeccably and making me feel inferior before I even begin to slaughter their language with my rusty grammar.

Cultural differences are evident even from the titles people like and those that they don't. The Greek Easter is incredibly different to how we celebrate it here, so Easter-themed books don't really lend themselves to translation. There's not much snow in Argentina at Christmas, either. An Estonian customer told me that dinosaurs are hugely popular in the Czech Republic, and that books with trains in don't sell well in Estonia (he believes they may evoke painful memories of WWII and Soviet occupation). He actually went on to explain, on a rather large and unrelated tangent, that a recent survey discovered that Estonians drink more, per person, than every other country in Europe with the exception of the Czech Republic. The government arranged a campaign highlighting this, urging people to think about how much they drink and try to cut down. It had the opposite effect; apparently the populace was rather annoyed about coming second so put more thought into what they weren't drinking.

My mental wandering while I was away reminded me of the two weeks I spent in the mountains in northern Italy in 2005. I walked along a mountain road, from village to village (read: from bar to bar) asking for information about the local area, as part of a project I had to complete. What I heard surprised me; there were differences in dialect between villages, even though they were only a kilometre or two apart from each other. I remember thinking of them as countries on a miniature continent; linked by things they have in common, but never the same.

I hope I haven't caused any offence; I know that not all Italians are unable to arrive on time, and that national stereotypes are too often false, bigoted and used for evil means. I know also that the Estonian's comments are his own, and have no idea about how true they may be. But the experience as a whole left me feeling hopeful. We talk about globalisation, fear the erosion of culture and the spread of the English language across the world. We envisage a time when the world is depressingly uniform, grey and unexciting. But everyone I met had something different about them. Each nationality differed from the others, in one way or another. And then each person is so much more than a citizen of the country in which they live; they have their own quirks and personalities that set them apart. I feel reassured, if anything, that the world is far from being dominated by one single culture, and maintains the differences that make it such an interesting and colourful place to live. And even if the borders disappeared and all the countries of the world were absorbed into a huge and happy federation, the differences between us as people would be enough to ensure that we'd never get bored.

I promise to write something more coherent shortly, when my man-flu *cough cough* is cured. In the meantime, if you're looking for a good read on a Monday or Friday, I recommend the Transatlantic Support Group, which is a collaborative effort with two great bloggers, Allison (who will post on Mondays) and Lauren (who will post on Fridays). I will post on Wednesdays, but given my current inability to think, let alone write, sensibly I recommend you check their posts out first so as not to be put off! Plus I'm a bit scared to be sandwiched between two such interesting and entertaining people. There's a better explanation on the blog, so skip over and have a gander, if you feel so inclined.