Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Starling roost, Plumstone


Starlings 27 Dec 09 - the dot above the trees, left of the starlings, is a Hen Harrier

Near my house in Wales is a starling roost. As many as three million birds return each winter's evening, many of them travelling more than thirty miles to rest overnight in a copse of fir trees on the south side of Plumstone mountain. The squadrons arrive in waves, forming dense clouds that swirl and twist above the trees - not dissimilar to those Attenborough films of fish balling and coiling in defence against dolphins.It is breathtaking to watch.

But why do they do this? Some say it is for security. Other say for warmth, or to pass on knowledge of feeding grounds. Yet none of these explanations seems sufficient. Why travel so far and expend so much energy? Why gather in such a large group, only to leave as individual squadrons at dawn? And why run the gauntlet of the raptors, waiting patiently on the telegraph poles or soaring above the trees. They picking off the stragglers, or, as last night, dive bomb the group and randomly strike for prey.

We can hypothesise over their reasons but, in truth, we do not know. Perhaps they simply have an instinct to return; like salmon returning to spawn and butterflies migrating across continents. Or like me, returning to Wales - seeking a sanctuary that is always worth the effort, logical or not.

video

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Books I'm reading # 6


Christmas is a good time for books, not only do I receive many as presents, I also have the time to sit down and enjoy them. So I'm looking forward to next week, holed up in Wales with a pile to get through - but more of that later. For now, what have I been reading?

After the excellent Remains of the Day, I bought two more books by Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled and Never Let Me Go. What a contrast.

The Unconsoled is the story of Ryder, a brilliant composer, due to give a recital but suffering from memory loss and delusions. The narrative is confined to the days leading up to the concert, set in a city which is unknown to him and yet clearly a part of his past; the characters he meets are both ordinary residents and also his school friends, his wife, his son. The city too is surreal - typically he walks through the back door of an art gallery and finds himself in his hotel - the sort of landscape we might experience when dreaming. Indeed the entire book has a hallucinatory quality - the bizarre accepted as normal, tangental passages reinforcing the psychotic feel, time and events merging into one. Often I longed for the book to end; when it does it is like one of those French films which fade out after nothing has happened, leaving the uncomfortable feeling that you've watched something important but you are not sure why. In summary, a very, very strange book - depending on your point of view, either brilliant or plain weird. On balance I'd choose the later.

Never Let Me Go is the story of Kathy, an ex-student of a seemingly idilic boarding school. But almost from page one we know something is awry with this school and its pupils, and indeed with Kathy. Gradually the shocking facts of her past and present are revealed, again within a time and landscape that is both recognisable and not - it is set in Britain, but not as or when we know it. As the story unfolds it becomes disturbing and compelling in equal measure - at one level it is a story of love and friendship in the face of an unspeakable future - but ultimately it is about how we are all trapped, and how readily we accept our fates. As good as Remains of the Day and very possibly the best book I've read this year.

Fleeced is a rant at the performance of government and politicians in the first decade of the new millennium. It is a challenging, if somewhat biased guide to our economic problems. The authors are the founders of the Taxpayers Alliance a non-aligned pressure group lobbying for reduced taxation and better government. They set out to expose the waste of three trillions pounds, accusing politicians of failing to do what is 'right' in favour of the electorally expedient. It would be easy to dismiss much of this as an extension of the Daily Express, but beneath the jingoistic ranting there are a number of very fair and well researched challenges - the growth in public spending; the lack of responsibility for the collapse of of the banks; the lack of political courage - best displayed in the ostrich like attitude to tackling public service pensions - the squandering of money on a veneer of progress... Makes you think.

Error World by Simon Garfield was an early Christmas present from the Secret Santa at the office. Whoever bought for me, chose well. Breezily written, it is a hilarious celebration of our passions and their absurdity. Ostensibly the central subject is stamp collecting, but it is also about obsession, nostalgia, and our relationships with the things we collect. It rises above the comic by its honesty and personal reflection - stamps become a metaphor for bigger and more universal issues. A book that makes you smile as you read.

Some other stuff too - Esther's Inheritance which I wrote about in Novella, Letters From Father Christmas by Tolkien, and I'm half way through Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers - not a very popular author in the UK yet well represented in the Penguin Modern Classics. Waiting on the shelf are Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes, Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder, Albert Camus' The Fall and McCullers again, The Member Of The Wedding.

So lots to get through. In the meantime, the best books I've read this year?

Novels - Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains Of The Day or Never Let Me Go - I can't chose between them.
Outdoor writing - Richard Askwith: Feet In The Clouds - a book about fell running and obsession.
Philosophy - Alain De Botton: The Pleasures And Sorrows Of Work - his best book yet, very funny.
Politics - Tim Garton Ash: Facts Are Subversive - liberal, literate and hopeful.
Welsh writing - Jeremy Brooks: Jampot Smith - a nostalgic coming of age story set in Llandudno
Children's - Eugene Trivizas: The Three Little Wolves And The Big Bad Pig - superbly illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. Here is a sample:

Happy reading.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Diminishing returns



When I was sixteen I began studying for my economics A-level. I was finding it tough and I wasn't alone - the abstract theory in Lipsey's Economics wasn't making much sense to anyone in the class. Then one day, my teacher, attempting to explain the bell curve of diminishing returns, said something like:

'Stop looking at the chart and think of it like this. You eat one Mars Bar - yummy. You eat two Mars Bars - even more yummy. Then three - that last one wasn't quite so nice. Then a fourth - I'm beginning to feel sick. And a fifth - I'm sorry, do you have some soapy water...'

I remember that somewhat exasperated speech, because it was the moment something clicked. I get it, I thought, I finally get it. Mars Bars give you pleasure - but each one gives a little less than the last, until finally they stop giving any pleasure at all. And that's why the graph dips into negative territory. Of course, why didn't I see that before - it's just like getting pissed.

From an early age, we intuitively understand the law of diminishing returns - at least we do once we've stuffed our face with birthday cake and felt 'icky' afterwards. Our understanding of the concept is often reinforced in our teenage years when we drink one too many bottles of cider, or wine, whatever... you can have too much of a good thing, is pretty much the whole theory in an nutshell.

And in later life, if you are anything like me, collecting things can have a strong tendency towards diminishing returns. We start out enthusiastically, each acquisition giving us great pleasure; we delight in the occasional gem or bargain that boosts our collection. But somewhere along the way the joy of each find wears off, our desires gets more expensive or we start buying items to 'complete the set' rather than loving the object itself. I once paid more than a hundred pounds for the Observers Book of Folk Songs - it sits on my shelves unread.

Simon Garfield touches on this in his excellent and hilarious book, The Error World. It is subtitled, a memoir of obsession and desire, and it describes his love of stamps and the absurd length he has gone to in collecting them. After losing out at auction he is despondent (his bid of £6000 was trumped by one of £10,500); eventually he realises that his collection is no longer giving him pleasure. In the jargon of the economists he is experiencing 'negative returns'.

Christmas is diminishing returns on a grand scale. I love Christmas and I tend to throw more cash at it than I should, but I know deep down that the most of the pleasure could be had for half the cost. And sometimes spending less can actually increase our pleasure - forcing us to think about what we really would like to eat, or drink or receive as a gift.

This year, my mother in law has been ill, our plans have had to change and we will celebrate Christmas in Wiltshire before travelling to Wales on Boxing Day. We therefore need to buy enough food for Christmas Day and minimise what will have to be transported or thrown away the next. It's interesting to see how the shopping list changed - to understand what we really consider important to a special celebration.

Coincidentally, I struck Mars Bars off the list - I had wanted some for party a game that would only have irritated my boys. Which brings me back to my economic teacher. His name was Pete Johnson and after his little speech I used to pester him with questions, trying to 'make real' the abstract theories we were learning. As we went through the syllabus I had twice as many questions as the rest of the class combined - at one point he banned me from a lesson for being a nuisance.

I'm sure he was right to do so - quite possibly my questions were giving negative returns to everyone else. But he did have the good grace to call the class to attention at the end of term, addressing us in serious tones :

The average mark for this terms exam paper was less than 4o%. This is deeply disappointing - unless it improves, most of you will fail and have wasted your time. Even the second highest mark was only 60%, which shows the spread of your mediocrity.

There is however one exception - a member of this class who has driven me to distraction; at times I was convinced he was either an idiot or playing the fool. But clearly I was wrong. Mark Charlton, your result was 95% - from now on you may ask as many questions as you like.

I did too, and in truth I've never really stopped. Though just occasionally Jane will remind me that I've reached the point where asking another might not be the best of ideas.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Winter reflections


'Is it winter ?' Dylan asked as we walked to school this morning.

'Almost,' I replied.

'But there's no snow and it's Christmas after 14 sleeps.'

'Yes but it's December and winter sort of starts in December.'

'What do you mean, sort of.'

Like father; like son, I thought.

Philosophers like their definitions to be complete - preferably encompassing what is necessary and sufficient. For example,in defining the requirements for a glass of orange squash we might identify three elements: water, orange cordial and a glass of some sort. Each of these is necessary but none is sufficient without the other two. A glass with water is, well, a glass of water; much the same for a glass filled with cordial; and water with cordial but no glass is ...

This approach works well for glasses of squash, but things get tricky when we use the same technique to define less tangible concepts. For example, a definition of art might view it as representation, or emotional response, or formal structure or historical concept. And what of the line between art and craft, or art and nature?

Sport is similarly difficult to define. Is mountaineering a sport? And why does the Olympics include archery, but not ballroom dancing? When I was involved with Sports Council Wales they refused to recognise darts, regarding it as a pastime. We all have our prejudices: personally I'd disqualify any sport that uses an engine.

One way round this problem is to say that ideas like art are simply, whatever we consider them to be. In other words they are relative to our culture and thinking. I find this unsatisfactory; imagine a culture which considered the moon to be a work of art - does that mean it is really a piece of art? I say it's a natural object which orbits the earth and is no more art than the soil in my garden; others would disagree.

An alternative, and to mind more satisfactory approach, is to acknowledge this as a problem of language. Some terms and concepts are not amenable to strict definition - it is better to think of them as having a family resemblance. Walking to school with Dylan I can usually recognise other children's mums or dads, it is more difficult when it come to Grandma of cousins. Perhaps our understanding of what makes art or sport is a bit like this. We can all agree on the core family members (athletics, football, rugby) but views begin to differ as the family tree spreads out and new generations replace the old (bungee jumping, hare coursing, shooting).

These are interesting questions or pointless ramblings, depending on your point of view. But be aware that definitions matter. Jane's mother was taken into hospital this week with a heart problem; last year, at around the same time, my father died of cancer. The NHS judged my mother in law to be worthy of treatment; not so my father. Ultimately, similar categorisation will affect us all.

So what of Dylan's question? As the world gets warmer is it winter in Britain in December? Is snow necessary or indeed sufficient - or is there a Rubicon date beyond which we are in its grip, whatever the weather?

For me, winter begins with the nativity plays and ends as the crocuses push through my lawn - the quicker the better; the sooner to start afresh.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Nablopromo


Thirty days has September,
April, June and November...

Was it really thirty days? Now it's over it feels like fewer - and yet it was certainly more than I expected.

I estimate it took me somewhere between sixty and ninety hours to write a blog post every day in November - mostly in the evenings, seldom taking less than two hours, more usually three. I write slowly, constantly revising and reading aloud what I have composed; adding links, further editing and replying to comments took another hour a day.

But I enjoyed it: the hours at the computer, the time to myself, the planning and researching, and the interest shown by my family. By declaring a commitment I had more motivation to see me through and more support too. 'Leave your Dad alone, he's doing his blog,' was a regular call from the kitchen.

There was much that I missed as I sat here: my hundredth post, twenty years since I moved in with Jane (she forgot too) , bonfire night parties, Strictly Come Dancing... so no loss there, then! But there was also much that I found: new words, new themes, new readers - and a little more knowledge of what works and what doesn't.

In my first piece of the month I wrote about the tension between quality and quantity. I said I hoped to experiment... be prepared to make a muck of it – fail spectacularly if necessary. I don't think I quite achieved that, but I hope I made some progress and made the Bike Shed more distinctive in its way.

I said too that I wanted to use the blog as preparation for the final module of my degree - it begins in January and I have submitted a proposal for my assessments to be based on the writing I produce here. If it is accepted, you can watch and share in my progress.

I have long felt that the writing establishment underestimates the potential of blogs - indeed, I've written about it here, arguing there is an element of snobbery to it. So I was pleased to learn that the Open College are encouraging students to start a blog as a learning journal. We bloggers are making progress; slowly slowly...

A bit like Views From The Bike Shed. After more than 120 posts it has grown from a throwaway notion into something I value highly - enough to spend the equivalent of two working weeks in November writing for it.

Earlier today I checked my blog archive. I was surprised to find that my first post was published on 2 December 2007 - happy birthday tomorrow! I also looked twice at the first words - in one of one's life's amazing coincidences they were:

Where did November go? I seem to have missed it this year.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Past imperfect 2 - Argyle Terrace


3 Argyle Terrace

In July 1982 I bought the ground floor of a Victorian terrace on the edge of North Shields in Tyneside. I paid £7,700 including legal fees. In return I got a huge flat with high ceilings and original features, a great view over the fields and a neighbour with a punk daughter who played the drums at all hours!

I was twenty years old and had just returned from my third year at university. There were three million people unemployed and somehow I landed a job as a sales rep for a newspaper. That single break allowed me to buy the flat and in so many ways affected the course of my life.

Putting the price of the flat into perspective, it was exactly the same as my first annual wage. I remember I borrowed £300 from my mother to cover the deposit. I was so determined to repay her that I barely did more than eat for two months. Looking back, quite why I was so fiercely independent I can't say, but I don't regret it, or what it taught me. I have remained so ever since.

I lived at Argyle Terrace for three years before moving north to Northumberland. They were three good years - formative, fun, and a long time ago in more ways than one. It would be almost inconceivable now for a young person to buy a decent first home for the equivalent of a year's wage.

And you know, it is not a good thing that they can't.

I feel immensely lucky to have reached adulthood at a time when buying a house wasn't the crippling expense it is today. A blog isn't the place to discuss detailed personal finances, but in the twenty seven years since I bought Argyle Terrace I have never had to take a mortgage more than twice my salary. That combination of good fortune and circumstance (and huge a slug of prudence) has afforded me a freedom from debt that many people only a decade younger, and for no fault of their own, have struggled to achieve.

The view from my window - and my first company car!

My Grandfather lived not far from Argyle Terrace. He bought his first house when he was in his twenties and never thought to move until he was seventy seven. His house wasn't an investment; it was somewhere to live and raise a family. That might sound old fashioned, Romantic even, but it has always struck me as the right way to look at it.

There is little that dismays me more than the property boom of recent years. At times I have wanted to scream. We are not richer when house prices rise - and certainly we are not richer as a society. Even at an individual level the 'I have equity' school of thought seldom stacks up. In my case I have supposedly made a handsome profit - but what about my children who will need a home sometime in the future? As a family we are immensely poorer.

A typical home in the UK is worth three to four times its price in 1995. But how does that supposed wealth manifest itself? It's not as if people can cash in and live for free elsewhere. In practice, the real wealth of home-owners of my generation (providing they have been prudent and not borrowed against their equity) is in having a smaller mortgage - something everyone could have enjoyed if prices hadn't risen so aggressively in the first place!

And none of this even touches on how the housing market has skewed our economy, left millions in a mortgage trap, warped our values about what is important. I could make some jokes here about Home Front and Location bloody Location having a lot to answer for - but it's way too serious to laugh at.

I feel most sad for those starting out. A few years ago young people were damned if they did and damned if they didn't. A friend of mine said recently, ' They should rent, like everyone does in Germany.' But that is unrealistic; we don't have their housing infrastructure and in any case cultural norms are an important part of our self worth - in the UK owning a house is, for the vast majority of aspiring people, an central aspect of making progress in life.

But if ownership is legitimate, a lust for rising prices and the putative wealth it brings is destructive. It has always struck me as perverse that housing is the only essential product we want to see increasing in price - imagine if we had the same attitude to energy or food. I could go on, but I would probably scream after all.

I know that every generation has its trials and fortunes, but as I look again at the photo of my first house, I think it was truly a lucky break to be starting out then. I hope one day the cost of housing will return to something near affordability - though I doubt my particular definition of that word would be possible.

More's the pity, because I suggest we'd be better off if it did.

**********

P.S. And there you were thinking my last post of November would be a nice quiet round up. Nablopromo - no problem!


Sunday, November 29, 2009

The creative vocabulary

Seascape - M Charlton
Oil painting, using only my fingers

My post yesterday was about images; it concluded with the opinion that computers are not equal the possibilities of traditional drawing and painting. The response from followers was largely in agreement, but one of the comments made me think: Elizabeth asked, 'are we just old gits?'

I don't think so. But first I should say some positive things about computers - or more correctly, digital media - lest I seem too much of a Luddite.

Digital media has brought with it a vast range of new and immensely creative possibilities, many of which we now take for granted. It's capacity to incorporate images (moving and static) with sound, words and interactive components is unsurpassed. What's more, you can create digital media at home, production is quick and cheap, and distribution to millions of people is near instant.

In a more direct comparison to drawing, programmes like Paint or Draw offer a simple and intuitive means to create images - even young children can find their way within minutes. There is barely a PC without a similar programme and printing, even from a cheap home printer, creates good quality images.

So why, with all this possibility, why do we not have more iconic images produced by computers? (I'm not talking about cartoons and moving images here - but plain images that would compare to a painting or drawing) And of those we do, why do they concentrate into the sphere of graphics rather than fine art? Accepting it is a huge generalisation, what is it about these images that makes them so much less interesting than 'proper drawing'?

I put it to you that they are flat! And that in using pixels rather than 'marks' to produce the image, they lack the creative vocabulary of drawing and painting. To extend the metaphor, computer images converse with the minimum of words - at best, this limited vocabulary encourages direct speech, easily understood and immediate on the senses (such as most graphic art); more often it is limited, crude and uninteresting. Drawing and painting, in comparison, has a vocabulary that is unbounded.

For many years I painted with a group of artists. We would meet six times a year, taking over a studio for the weekend. Always, at the start of our meetings we would begin with an exercise called mark making. I will describe it in detail, because in doing so I think it might explains what I'm struggling to say - it is also a fun exercise to try, by yourself of with your children.

Mark making

Start with a large piece of paper on an easel or a table. Take a pen, charcoal, pencil - whatever - and draw a line. Look at it. Then make a different mark: some shading perhaps, or a thinner line. Repeat the process, always making a different mark: dot, dash, smudge, splatter, wide, immense, longer, shorter...

When you've exhausted the possibility of one item - say charcoal - move onto another: pastels, acrylic paints, pencils... Try different colours, different textures - always you are trying to make a different type mark.

Gradually all your art equipment should be unpacked- oil paints, chalks, rollers, brushes, palate knives - nothing should be left unused. Remember, you are NOT trying to make a picture - you making as many different marks as you can.

And when your equipment is all laid out and you've exhausted your ideas, think again. What about complex marks (one colour or line drawn over another) or negative marks (scratching away at what is already there) - maybe you want to spit on the paper, or add some earth, or stick on a toffee wrapper, or print with potato, or your hands, fingers, nails.

Keep going - how many more can you make? Is there a mark somewhere else in the room that you can steal? How about taking a tube of paint and squeezing it thickly onto the paper - then smudging some of it, adding some sand - building an impasto for more variety. Or perhaps use a domestic paint brush and swipe it across the paper.

Don't be precious. Remember, you're not making a picture. And now I think of it, why not rip it in half and stick it back together like a collage. Or pass the whole thing through a mangle, walk on it, cry over it, kiss it.... We usually stopped after twenty minutes but I reckon I could have gone on for hours. My record was over five hundred marks.

And ultimately, this is why paintings and drawings are more interesting than graphics and computer images. Of course, this isn't universally so - there are excellent graphics just as there are dreadful drawings; there are superb books written with limited vocabulary (Runt by Niall Griffiths uses only 700 words) and iconic pictures with minimal marks (Andy Warhol). But I am talking in general terms not absolutes - and I haven't even touched on the question of feel and the physical response that you cannot have with a computer.

Digital media has undoubtedly added to our creative possibilities, as did photography before it. I am glad it has arrived in my lifetime, but I am equally glad that new media seldom kills the old. And when it comes to drawing and the images we hang on our walls, I believe the 'old gits' still have the upper hand.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A true likeness?

My middle son is creative, and like me he's interested in drawing. He's at that stage when graphics still have a strong appeal, but he increasingly knows there's more to art than cartoons.

Yesterday, he was engrossed at the computer. What was he doing I asked? 'Just some drawings,' he said,'I often make pictures on this programme.' He showed me a large collection of images; some were simple patterns, others more intricate op-art illusions; some, like the picture below, were striking poster- style graphics.

I told him they were excellent. But as we looked, he said. 'The one I like best is the tortoise, only I can't understand why.'

My heart sang, for I'd noticed that image and not said anything. It was far and away his best picture - but explaining why is not easy, especially to a thirteen year old.

It is good, I told him, because it is like a tortoise and yet not like one. Did you draw it quickly? I asked. He told me had, though he'd tried a number of times, deleting each failed attempt. 'This one just felt right,' he said, 'so I left it.' Again my heart sang.

For fiddling is the curse of good art. And had he done so I have no doubt it would have crossed that imperceptible line and become a cartoon. Look again at the images above - the tortoise is not a caricature in the way the face is; it is more like a child's drawing, though again, not quite.

The size of the head is important. For the head is the most fascinating part of a tortoise - it is what we peer at and what peers at us - hence its oversize renditions works all the more effectively. As does the mouth, a slash, a half smile - and the two pinpoint eyes. Anything more, round eyes with pupils say, and we'd be back to cartoons. As I said before - it is like, but not like.

The body too - bang, bang, bang - a few lines and you're there; it's obvious what has been drawn, no need to pretty it up. And three legs, not two, or four - the rear one cocked by a stroke of luck that is common in art, but which requires the judgement to leave it alone.

When you look at the tortoise you know it is 'wrong' and yet it feels more 'right' than a careful rendition could ever be. Why is this and what does it tell us?

In the age of photography and graphics, the role of figurative painting is diminished. Cezzane said that the purpose of art is not to copy, but to make real our sensations. Putting this another way - photo-realistic representation may be skilful, but it is also sterile. This is exactly what Michael's image avoids.

But now for a little perspective: this is not a work of genius; it is a teenager's picture of a tortoise. That said, it has within it all the elements that make for good drawing - real drawing - a sense of likeness, a feeling for the subject, and a primacy of image over craft. These things are vital and in these respects the picture shows promise.

I have only one gripe: it was done on the computer. For all its merits, the screen cannot match charcoal on paper - nor can the cursor replace the hand.

And neither will the processor - dual core or otherwise - ever replicate our instinctive response, which is the basis of all great art.

Friday, November 27, 2009

So near and yet so far


Jane and I have just returned from lunch with some friends. They live eighty miles to the east, so we met half-way at a country pub. It was great to catch up: a few hours chat, a glass of wine, an excellent menu. We must do it more often.

Our friends had flown home from Australia last week. They'd been to visit their son who emigrated two years ago; a four week trip - their second in a year - and they plan to go again in March.

The motivation isn't only their son: they have a new grandson, born earlier this year. 'It's lovely out there,' they said, 'but it's so all or nothing. By the time you get there, you've got to make a trip of it - and of course, there's the expense.'

My mother lives round the corner. She used to live four hundred miles away, and I preferred it, but that's a long story. To be fair the proximity has certain advantages: she babysits occasionally, Dylan goes for tea on Tuesdays, she can feed the tortoise when we're away. She can also pop round unexpectedly, phone up because a light needs changing, and when she was ill guess who did the nursing? Jane, you're an angel.

Our friend's daughter lives in East Anglia, she has a baby and another on the way - understandably she'd like her mum around. 'It's a difficult distance,' they said, 'not impossible now we're retired, but too far for a day trip.' Longer term, and after much consideration, they plan to move within fifty miles. 'It's a big upheaval, but then you think about your real priorities.'

Jane would live nearer her parents. When we first met she lived half a mile away; her brother lives in the same village as do the other grandchildren - his divorce proving no barrier to proximity. I suspect we will move back one day, though not to the same village. For there is a fine line between closeness and claustrophobia; between living our own lives and sharing in someone else's.

Where we live now, Jane's parents are an hour's drive. They come once a fortnight and usually stay over; we look forward to it. And they, in turn, enjoy us visiting them; they live near the mountains so we can combine it with a weekend break. This arrangement has worked perfectly for fourteen years; so long as everyone is fit and has access to a car it is a good compromise.

But there is no set formula. And I often wonder how I will feel when my boys move away. I can rationalise their need to move on, the requirements of their careers, the opportunities of bigger places. And yet beneath the surface - not even deep down - I know I will be bereft.

For years our only discussions on their personal space have revolved around tidying bedrooms. But gradually their horizons are expanding: trips into town, overnight parties, can we go to the festival please? This week Daniel signed up for an expedition to Borneo. I have told him he can go, so long as he earns his passage and keeps our trust.

This is all as it should be - it is part of the growing up and away from us that they need to do. I know it is not healthy to hold them back. But just occasionally I think, 'not so fast.' And I know that all too soon I'll be hoping, 'not so far.'

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Narberth


Town Hall - Narberth (image from Narberth COT)

When I first came to Pembrokeshire I would smile at a particular road sign on the A40: it read, Arberth Narberth. Bilingual roadsigns are commonplace in Wales, and though this one appealed me for its rhyme I never thought to visit the town. It was only when a traffic accident diverted me that I chanced upon one of the hidden gems of West Wales.

Narberth (or Arberth if you're talking Welsh) is about as untypical for Pembroke as it can get. For a start, it is not near to the sea, lying pretty much in the middle of the county. It is on what is known as the Landsker, the line dividing the English and Welsh speaking areas in South West Wales. The line is pronounced, but I have a feeling the people of Narberth knew something of the best of both cultures. And perhaps that explains the subtle and slightly poetic variation in the two names.

For Narberth is a sophisticated town. It has the best and most concentrated collection of boutiques, galleries, delicatessen, dress shops, antique dealers and cafes this side of Cardiff. It has a thriving arts scene too, and for years the Queen's Hall played host to bands which would never usually venture this far. It's a sort of Notting Hill in Wales, but much much better - because it lacks the pretence as well as the prices.

This morning Jane and I sat in the Ultracomidia delicatessen and had brunch. I ordered the set breakfast: toasted ciabatta with olive oil, Serano ham, tomatoes, a glass of freshly squeezed orange and think Spanish hot chocolate. It cost less than going to Mcdonalds. Jane had the same with Comte cheese and a cappuccino. We mixed and matched and decided we really ought to book for one of the tapas evenings. Frankly, I could have sat there reading Baudelaire and not felt out of place.

Cheese at Ultracomidia

And, dare I say it, this is rare in this part of Wales. Readers of this blog will know of my affection for Pembrokeshire, but one of its lesser aspects is that the heavy influx of summer tourists means there are few businesses with aspirations beyond this obvious source of income. Much of what passes as quality is little more than polished veneer.

In many towns - St David's is a good example - the low season feels deserted and shabby. Even in high season there is the seaside equivalent of pile it high - sell it cheap with a mix of dodgy crab sandwiches and tacky souvenirs. I'm being a touch harsh here - the lack of pretension is one of Pembrokeshire's delights too - but just sometimes I need a more sophisticated fix.

Narberth gets the balance right and works hard to keep it going. In the summer there is a food festival, an arts festival, and a brilliantly conceived children's festival - nicknamed the Narby Gras. In December there is a winter carnival and, of course, they do Christmas with lights and street sellers; similar efforts are made at New Year, Easter, Halloween.

If all this sounds a touch upmarket I guess that is true. But the important phrase in that last sentence is 'a touch', because the real delight of Narberth is that it is accessible to almost all. It is not expensive - eating there is cheaper than the tourist traps - and the town actively markets itself as offering superb value. Nor do you have to like bruschetta and olives to enjoy the place - the butchers does the best faggots I know of, and the chippy on the corner (The Contented Sole) does a great fish chips and curry sauce.

I could go on. But you can already tell I like Narberth. And you probably have as good an idea as you're going to get without going there. If you are down in West Wales, I'd strongly recommend you do.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Simple pleasures


It's that time of year when we have the annual 'Christmas Present Conversation'. It goes something like this.

Jane: You're so difficult. Is there anything you'd like?

Me: Just buy me some books.

Jane: But you buy those all the time.

Me: I can't think of anything else.

Jane: How about a coat?

Me: Not clothes please.

Jane: Point taken, but you must want something?

Me: How about some nice Jam?

Jane: I can't buy you jam.

Me: Why not?

Jane: Because it's not right, unless you're Eighty.

Me: Then I'd like a saxophone. A tenor saxophone to be precise and you get them from...

Jane: Now you're just being silly.

I'm not trying to be difficult; I realise that I sound like my grandparents - note I've skipped a generation and didn't bother with the parent-like stage - but I genuinely can't think of anything I particularly desire.

Instead, I smugly ponder how it is small things in life which give me most pleasure.

Except that's not true - I like big things too!

This year I took enormous pleasure from re-roofing our cottage in slate although I could have used tiles. When I 'needed' a new computer I bought a top specification Apple-Mac because I sit at the thing for hours every day. And I'm about to pay a ridiculous amount for a new kitchen because I want it sorted and I want it now. But none of these are exactly Christmas present material.

I like specialist things too. I told Jane I fancied a Hilleburg Nalo GT 2 tent, to which she replied, 'So you'll be getting that yourself.' I'd also like a specimen of Automris Io for my moth collection but I didn't bother saying.

I realise it's the mid range I need to get better at. The present that lies somewhere between a book and a saxophone - I did suggest a banjo but that wasn't taken seriously either. A raku piece? Maybe, but I'd want to chose it, so no surprise on the day. Or what about a... I'm really struggling here; surely Christmas isn't meant to be this difficult.

So might I suggest we reconsider the merits of jam.

For the fact is, I really like it - blackcurrant especially. Good jam is one of the small but delicious pleasures I insist on each morning. I know it only costs a few pounds but why should that matter? George Orwell in his essay on the delights of English cookery, wrote, 'is there anything quite as good as the soft part of the crust from an English cottage loaf.' Well, I'd add jam - and some good coffee too.

And while I'm on a roll: a good book, some olives and goats cheese for lunch, and a brochure from World of Butterflies.

Now that would be a fabulous Christmas.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A very human prison

Deep blue sea - M Charlton 2000

I seldom bother with newspapers, but today my assistant showed me an article in the Guardian that I read three times.

The story described the ordeal of of Rom Houben, a student who was paralysed in a car crash and misdiagnosed as being in a permanent vegetative state. More than 23 years later his doctors discovered he was fully conscious - trapped and screaming at world that couldn't hear.

Houben's condition reminded me of the journalist Jean Bauby, a victim of locked in syndrome who eventually wrote of his experiences by 'blinking' out the letters of the alphabet. His book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was a bestseller and later became a film. But at least Bauby was able to communicate of sorts - he wasn't thought to be 'extinct'; the description applied to Houben by his doctor.

I kept trying to work out if there was an analogy to the 'brain in a vat' theory - was it a kind of equal and opposite condition I wondered? It is not. The 'brain in a vat' hypothesis suggests that we could all be captive brains, controlled by electric impulses that simulate reality (as in the film, The Matrix) - and yet we wouldn't know it.

But Houben was not a brain in a vat - and there was nothing artificially stimulating his brain. He knew exactly what was happening to him and why. I find it astonishing that in such circumstances he did not go out of his mind.

His solitary incarceration also brought to mind Brian Keenan's haunting book, An Evil Cradling. Keenan describes his four-year imprisonment by terrorists, much of it in isolation. But the ordeal is not comparable either; he could move and converse and elicit a response, albeit trapped in unthinkable conditions.

Ultimately, the closest analogy I could think of was those patients who have reported full consciousness under anaesthesia. They describe their helplessness as the doctors operate on their body. Houben did not have this pain, but he suffered something of the same terror for 23 years. I shuddered at the thought.

Our horror at these stories is understandable. But I find the idea of Houben's ordeal to be particularly shocking. And I think this says something about what we consider most important in being human. Ultimately it is our minds that most differentiate us and give us our place in the world. A fully functioning mind trapped in paralysed body is somehow the worst form of imprisonment.

Consider the opposite situation to Houben's - though it is quite hard to conceive how it would ever happen in reality - a one in which a the mind is paralysed but the body fully active. This is what you might call the Zombie scenario; a being that we do not consider 'alive' in the normal sense. The underlying folklore is that without the mind we are 'living dead'.

From an ethical standpoint, it is our minds that cause us to value human life over other animals. Anything less, says the philosopher Peter Singer, would be speciesism - making an analogy to racism or sexism. The reason, he claims, human life is more valuable than other forms is our ability to understand our situation, to have a sense of the past and aspirations for the future.

And yet, in Western society we are now obsessed with our bodies - well beyond any requirements of physical need. If you ask a group of young people would they like to be clever or attractive you'd get a mixed response to what is an unfair question. But what if you asked, 'would you like to be a little more pretty/handsome or a little more intelligent?' I have a horrible suspicion what the average answer would be.

Of course, we should not confuse a desire to be attractive with the ultimate value of humanity - we do not trade one for the other in our day to day lives. And neither should we underestimate the joy of physical wellbeing. Healthy body and healthy mind - all of us would wish for both, and though we might get our priorities muddled at times,we recognise it is their combination which brings the greatest joy to life.

Indeed, I was thinking about all of this as I went for a run tonight. How lucky I felt; the rain on my cheeks, the wind howling in the streets and my calves slowly easing as I turned for home and a blog post to write.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thoughts on food and sex


My blog today was going to be about food, but pondering what to write my mind drifted back to one of the first writing courses I attended...

It was more of a retreat than a course. We were sitting in the common room, a group of twelve students and a tutor-cum-facilitator. The wine was open and we'd exchanged pleasantries. What plans did we have, our tutor asked?

There came the usual replies.

One lady was writing prose poems in memory of her son; another was finishing the second volume of her historic trilogy; a doctor from Leicester was writing a farce about the Health Service - a consultant had been caught pissing in the sink; his gay lover who chaired the disciplinary panel was being bribed by a nurse with Munchausen's syndrome who was slowly...

Everyone laughed and I was nervous of explaining my modest goals. But as I came to speak I was interrupted by a very stout lady with a thick Germanic accent.

'I am coming here to write about the sex.'

There was a short pause in the chatter.

'How interesting,' the tutor replied. 'Feminism is such a challenging subject.'

A longer pause.

'I am not wanting these woman issues. I am wanting the sex.'

The chink of wine glasses on the coffee table; eyes to ceiling, window, floor...

'I'm sorry, I don't quite understand?' The tutor filled her glass.

'It is simple; I am only liking the fucking.'

The silence which followed is one of the great comedy moments of my lifetime. It is beyond my powers to describe the excruciating discomfort of those present. Eventually an elderly lady piped up.

'Might I say, isn't that a bit pornographic. I mean, sex in it's wider context is one thing, and passion as part the range human emotions goes as far back as Shakespeare... '

'No, I am only wanting the sex.'

By now I was holding my sides and the doctor from Leicester was frantically taking notes.

The German lady went on to try and make a serious point. She wanted, she said, to write about sex, and specifically the sexual act. What's more she wanted to write about it directly, not by use of context, euphemism or symbolism. This was difficult and most writers bottled out. She continued.

'It is like in writing about the food. The cooks they write about the history and the region and the preparations - but I want to know about the food. I want to know how it is tasting. I want to know what it makes my mouth feel. This is what we need with the sex is it not?'

By the end of her speech our tutor had recovered her composure. 'That sounds very challenging,' she said in a jolly voice. 'Particularity is one of the essentials of good writing. I'm sure we'll all be very interested to hear how you get on.'

And we were too. Each evening a few students would read from the work they'd written that day. The doctor made us laugh with his farce, there were nods of sympathy for the prose poems, and suitably constructive feedback on the second volume of the trilogy.

Sometimes the whole group would gather - more often it was just a few of us. But there was a full house for the night our German friend was due to read. Wine glasses were quickly filled as she opened her folder to speak...

'I have not been doing very much the fucking. So I read you about my favourite food!'

There was an audible sigh - of relief or disappointment, I couldn't possibly say.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Past imperfect 1 - Bowden Doors

December 1984 - Bowden Doors

Main Wall, 45 Feet - Hard very severe (5b)

A fine route up the centre of the first major wall of the crag. Start in a small corner below an indefinite crack. Climb the corner, exit on right and climb the wall above on good holds to the top.
Northumberland - A Rock Climbing Guide

Bowden Doors is a sandstone outcrop on Belford Moor, east of the Cheviot in the Scottish Borders. In my twenties it was the place of my dreams; the place I learned to climb and where I came of age. It is a place that has never left me.

And so I find it astonishing to think that this picture was taken 25 years ago.

The route had obsessed me for years - almost since I began climbing. Main Wall: the name said everything - no nonsense, just an obvious line up the centre of the crag; hard, steep, uncompromising. And appropriate to the bitter winds and big skies of Northumberland.

I had known for some time that I was good enough to climb it. But I wanted to do it in style and many times refused to practice on a top rope. The route took on a significance well beyond its grade, beyond most other things in my life - climbing it was about more than just moves on rock. By December I had been putting it off for months - for far too long, in fact.

I remember fragments of the day. Ken perched on a ledge taking photos; Simon and Katie flirting and not very interested. The rock, dry and sharp - the smell of it muted by the cold. There was mist that day too, a pale blue mist that the sun slowly burned away. By early afternoon the crag was warmed with a golden light. I walked over and uncoiled the rope.

In the picture I am at the crux move - a high step to leave the corner and pull onto the blank wall. I am heading for the pinkish scoop about four feet above me - there is a tiny nubbin that appears as a dark brown dot half way between my body and the scoop - I will transfer both hands to this and step up, my right foot smearing on a thin groove.

I know all this because there are certain climbs that stay with you: the easy first moves, the awkward balancing in the corner, the dry mouth, the wall above. And I remember the nubbin,the sharpness of the grit as it bit into my fingers - the tension in my tendons as they held my weight.

And the joy as I made it!

I remember too the snug placement of a nut, to save me should I fall - and stepping onto the upper wall, all difficulties behind me - powering upward - jug holds for my hands, and the rest of my life ahead of me...

The Wave - northern end of Bowden Doors, Northumberland
One of the most astonishing natural features I have ever seen

Post script:

I returned to Bowden Doors last year; it was a pilgrimage of sorts.

My father was dying and I had travelled north to see him - the first time in twenty years. That evening I drove to Wooler and the next day returned to the crag where I had sought to escape.

There was a young lad struggling on the same route. You reach for the nubbin, I said to him - place your right foot high, and pull for all your life...

When I die, I'd like my ashes to be scattered there.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Explaining Monty Hall


The other week we went to the Peak District and spent the evening as family in the pub. It's nice to spend time together, I was telling a friend, we seldom find the time now the older boys are teenagers. Some evenings, they barely say a word.

'What did you talk about,' he asked. 'Football? The X factor? Girlfriends?'

'Err, no. We discussed the Monty Hall Problem.'

"I won't ask,' he said.

We're a strange lot, but my kids are used to it by now. Michael was especially pleased as he's studying The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which happens to mention the problem - and evidently nobody in his class could understand it. And I was chuffed because for the first time I managed to explain it clearly enough so that somebody did.

Let's see if I can repeat the feat in writing, without recourse to pictures or spreadsheets, and in much plainer language than Wikipedia.

The problem

It goes something like this:

Monty Hall is a game show host and you are the winning contestant. He shows you three doors and tells you that behind one is a car; behind the other two doors there are goats. You have to pick a door, and whatever is behind your choice is yours to keep.

Simple so far.

So you choose a door (say, the middle one), but instead of revealing what is behind it, Monty Hall opens one of the other doors - there is a goat munching some hay. He then asks, 'Before I open the remaining doors would you like to alter your choice?'

The Monty Hall problem is this - should you stick with your original choice or not?

The answer

Most people say it makes no difference: you have a 50:50 chance because there are two doors left - altering your choice would not change the probability of winning. Intuitively this seems right.

But most people are wrong! The correct answer is that you should switch your choice to the other door. In fact, you are twice as likely to win the car if you do so.

Can you figure out why?

The explanation

The key to understanding the correct answer is to recognise that when Monty Hall opened the first door (to reveal a goat), he did not necessarily open it at random. This makes all the difference to the probability of winning if you switch.

Let's go through an example to see why.

Remember, there are three doors you can choose from - I'll call them A, B and C. Behind one door is a car, behind the others are goats.

We are going to assume the car is behind door A. Of course, you don't know that when you make your choice - but remember that Monty Hall does!

Now let's work through each of the options and see how switching your choice later on affects the outcome.

Remember, the car is behind door A.

Option 1 - you chose door A.

If you chose door A, Monty Hall can open any of the other doors at random (either B or C it makes no difference) and reveal a goat.

He then asks, do you want to stick with your choice of A or change?

Obviously, if you stick with your choice (A) you will win; if you switch (to B or C) you will lose.

Score so far: Sticking 1 - 0 Changing

Option 2 - you choose door B.

Now in this case - and this is the critical bit - Monty Hall can't open one of the other doors at random. He knows that the car is behind door A and you have chosen B, therefore he MUST open door C.

He then asks, do you want to stick with your choice of B or change?

If you stick with your choice (B) you will lose; if you switch (to A) you will win.

Score so far: Sticking 1 - 1 Changing

Option 3 - you choose door C.

This is exactly the same as the option above. In choosing door C you have picked a goat, so Monty can't open the other door at random - he MUST open door B otherwise he would reveal the car, which is behind A.

He then asks, do you want to stick with your choice of C or change?

If you stick with your choice (C) you will lose; if you switch (to A) you will win.

Score so far: Sticking 1 - 2 Changing

The wrap up

There were only three choices you could make - A B or C. The example above has covered all the permutations.

It shows that the person who sticks with their choice will win one out of three times - the person who switches will win two out of three times.

And the reason is that in two of the three cases (the times you will win by switching), Monty Hall is not choosing a door at random when he reveals a goat - he is choosing the only door that will keep the car concealed.

Putting this another way - if your initial choice was the door with the car, Monty can open any other door and you will lose if you switch. But if your initial choice was a goat, he must always show you the other goat and leave the car concealed. As your'e twice as likely to pick a goat with your first choice of door, you are therefore twice as likely to win the car if you switch.

So there you have it - the Monty Hall problem explained!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Talking to strangers

Not me - I promise

Last night, in a swanky London restaurant, I had dinner with some colleagues and our company's lawyers. It was a pleasant evening; we were celebrating a successful deal; intelligent, interesting company, and surprisingly, we didn't talk about work. In fact, we talked about blogs.

Not just blogs, but Twitter and Facebook and social media in general. And their question was, why? Not only why I write a blog - though we'll come to that in a minute - but why is there such a demand to connect with strangers? Their premise was: communication between friends is one thing; talking to anyone and everyone is bordering on the weird.

Now it has to be said this was a typical lawyers' conversation - bright minds, but somewhat theoretical. None had ever read a blog, they were not on Twitter and their experience of Facebook came from their children or a 'friend.' My colleague admitted to being addicted to his Blackberry, and there were empathetic nods over the Cabernet Sauvignon. But aside from email, it was clear that social media had not penetrated the Magic Circle.

The first question was why write a blog at all? Because I enjoy it, I explained, and writing is important to me - when you come to think of it, why paint, or make models or play golf? But couldn't I write without posting it online - why the urge to share? Because publishing gives me an incentive to write more clearly, to care about the words.

Fair enough, but isn't it narcissistic to be writing for strangers? Is that so different to exhibiting paintings, or publishing a book? I replied. When we do those things, we invite people to take a look - to come and see what we have found - sharing our experience is part of the point.

And in practice I do know many of the people who read my blog. All my family read it, including my wife and my children - even Dylan looks in occasionally. Today I received a letter from my father-in-law, describing it as a 'splendid project' and listing his favourite posts. Friends and work colleagues read it too, though interestingly only Sara (who also blogs) leaves comments.

I wasn't getting off that easily. Writing for family and friends is one thing; a putative relationship with other bloggers is surely another? I could argue a few semantic points on this, but the general sentiment is a fair one. I had not envisaged this when I started blogging and yet I value the comments I receive; it gives me a kick that 'strangers' read what I have to say and are prepared to acknowledge it. More than that, I am prepared to return the favour.

Though in practice it's seldom a chore. As in 'real life', where people become friends because they have shared interests and values, I follow the blogs I like and skip those I don't. This is similar to joining a writing group or a cycling club - we look for like minds and shared interests - but in doing so, we understand the unspoken rule of contributing to a spirit of community.

So thanks to all of you who share your writing and comment on the bike shed. To my friends up north, Steve and Dan, Hadriana and Her on the Hill. From Wales: Maggie, Cait and the Celtic Heart. To those sharing life abroad: French Fancy, the Fly in the Web and Abe Lincoln. And nearer to home: Carol and Darren and Michelle at Veg Plotting. As well as all the others: the Zoo Archaeologist, Mrs OMG, Catherine, Sara, Jimmy Bastard and my favourite name of all, the PinkFairyGran - I wonder how those last two would get on together? Apologies to those I forgot to mention.

And so we come to social media - where blogging gives way to Twitter and Facebook - where it is less about writing and more overtly a means to connect. This is not for me, and a side of me empathises with last night's chatter. I find it hard to envisage how it works; twitter is too short and Facebook remains a mystery. But I recognise that others have different attitudes - and where those are shared, friendships (perhaps fellowships is a better word) will quickly form.

I am conscious too that businessmen and lawyers, dining in a London hotel, are not the best judge of these things.

Last Sunday I took Daniel to task for his casual attitude to Facebook invitations. Tell me how many friends you have, I demanded. About 150 was the answer. Then I want you to delete anyone you do not personally know! 'But I know them all,' he replied, '...not like you on your blog.'

I didn't argue. But you know, I think he's not quite right on that one.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Collections 10 - Sketchbooks



Sketchbooks are things of great value. They store our ideas, aspirations, memories, mistakes. They are used by painters and sculptors, and writers too - though writers tend to call them common-place or notebooks. Sketchbooks are indispensable - as important as any finished piece of work - you should never be without one.

At least that's what the tutors say. In practice keeping a sketchbook requires more discipline than you might imagine. Remembering the thing is my biggest problem; closely followed by the dilemma of which jacket to store it in - or should I use a man-bag? And will I painting or drawing? You'd be surprised at all the gubbins you might need - it's so much easier just to pick up a camera.

And yet over the years I have filled up a fair number.

My favourites are square format black hardback - about five inches wide - made by Seawhite of Brighton. And for painting I like bound watercolour blocks sold by the art supplier Bird and Davies. For writing I'm less fussy - though I loathe anything spiral bound - my favourites are the old fashioned exercise books with manila covers and wide lined pages.

Already you will sense that sketchbooks can be very particular - you use the thing every day; you want it to be right. Now I've gone all digital I'm the same with my computer - I want it to be effective and robust, never to let me down. But computers, for all I like them, will never match the simplicity of paper and pencil.Nor can they match their possibilities - especially if you stop being precious.


My early sketchbooks were too perfect to be any good. I was in awe of people who could draw like Augustus John or sketch like Turner. I was trying to make my sketchbooks like mini exhibitions - and missing the point completely. It was only when I learned not to worry that the quality improved.

Sketchbooks are about looking - not about looking good. It doesn't matter what you put down, so long as it reminds you and strikes a true chord of response. They are also about time and place and memory When they were little, I would often let my boys draw with me - in one book I have some drawings of the Alps, mine are side by side with Michael's - guess whose are the best? Darn him!


It was from using sketchbooks that I started writing. I began by taking notes to accompany the drawings; gradually they increased - I even wrote some poems - until eventually, there were hardly any pictures at all. My boys would write in them too. Perhaps this is why I see little distinction between sketch and note books. I would hate to lose any of them. They are one of the first things I'd rescue if ever we had a flood.

But I don't pack them away - they sit by my desk; there to be used, as reference and to be added to still. And all the better for mucky fingerprints, the odd splodge of jam and few pages bent at the corners.