Thursday, February 26, 2015

Long Distance

The beginning of Steven Spielberg's best film, Duel, captures the magic of driving in America. I like the process of transformation, from driving along a busy 12-lane freeway, with dozens of radio stations to choose from, to finding yourself alone, on a deserted two-lane stretch of road, with only a crackling Christian channel for company, broadcasting a melodrama about an alcoholic adulterer who finds Jesus.

A sign announces that Davis City is five miles ahead and you feel a wave of excitement, as if the promised land is around the corner. It doesn't matter that when you reach Davis City, it takes 15 seconds to travel from one end to the other. The pleasure is in the anticipation.

Sadly, Great Britain's motorways don't offer quite the same excitement:

There will always be three or four lanes and the view will nearly always be the same . You may feel a slight frisson as BBC Radio Warwickshire's diminishing signal segues into a stronger one from Radio Leicester. I can't say I did.

I had to make a 400-mile round trip yesterday, along a purgatorial stretch of motoway that seemed to be designed to sap the human spirit. At one point I stopped at a service station, hoping to restore my equilibrium. That was a mistake.

Where was I? I still don't know. Everything was identical to another service station I went to last week. Working men in hi-vis jackets huddled around the counter of Greggs Bakery, whilst middle management types in shiny suits hooked into the free wifi in Costa Coffe and checked their emails.

The design of the service station aimed at a reassuring uniformity, presenting the visitor with familiar brands. There was no sense of being anywhere.

Later, I stopped at Newport Pagnell and went across this walkway. Most of the windows had been frosted, but a couple of clear panes gave a view of cars and lorries hurtling past underneath. The movement and noise beneath me contrasted with the curious stillness of the bridge.

Further north, I noticed that the Waitrose in another service station was identical to the one at Newport Pagnell, right down to the three boxes of Lindt chocolate bunnies to the left of the till. It reminded me of a question that our philosophy lecturer asked us:

"If I remove my friend's Ford Cortina and replace it with one that's identical in every minute detail to the point where my friend has no idea that his car has been switched, is it the same car?"

At the time, we all groaned and said no, of course not. What a silly question. But actually it was a sly introduction to epistemology, forcing us to confront the truth that reality was simply what we thought we knew. Was I in the same Waitrose?

But then I noticed that the sales assistant had a slightly different accent and was a little friendlier. It was like unlocking your Cortina and finding furry dice that weren't there before.

After hours of driving, I reached my destination. The prospect of having to drive home wasn't particularly appealling. Perhaps I could just live here, I thought, as I drove past rows of semi-detached houses. I quickly spotted my new local shop, which had three men drinking cans of lager outside.

Whenever I go anywhere, I wonder what it would be like to have a life there. If I'd made different decisions when I was young, where would I be now? More successful, or drinking lager outside a corner shop in the north? Happier or sadder?

It's tantalising to think how many paths are open to us.

My meeting lasted for five minutes. He was a nice chap and we both agreed that we'd play it by ear. There wasn't much more to say.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Long Man

This morning began normally enough. My wife refused to get up until she'd read another chapter of the new Anne Tyler novel. I fiddled around on my phone, looking at a selection of pointless updates on Facebook. My older son remained asleep, while his brother crept downstairs to play on the computer.

I knew that with a little application, we could continue doing this until lunchtime, blaming the weather for our inertia. But a brief glint of sunlight from a passing car hinted at a morning that was too good to be squandered. A walk on the South Downs was the answer. I told my younger son to get his coat. 
We started here, in the shadow of the Long Man of Wilmington. The beauty of this hill figure, "as high as forty men", is that nobody knows anything about it. It may be thousands of years old or just a few hundred. We don't have a clue who built it, or why. 

Whether it's a fertility symbol, a warning to enemies or a simple work of art is anyone's guess. That's the beauty of the Long Man.

Erich von Daniken would probably assert that it's a signal to visiting aliens. As if.

I once had the misfortune to work in a bookshop with a large clientele of New Age fans, during which I met a number of charlatans and some people who probably needed more help than a quartz crystal could provide. As a result, I avoid visiting the Long Man when there's any likelihood of spotting a druid.

Ironically, they spoil the mystical atmosphere of the place.

My son, who is nine, looked very thoughtful and said "This is marvellous. You know, when I was younger, I preferred the city to the countryside, but I find that as I get older, I prefer the countryside."

A wise head on young shoulders.

I didn't have any particular plan, other than to walk to the Long Man, but my son seemed to be enjoying himself so much, it seemed a pity to stop. So we didn't.

The largest hill is Firle Beacon. Virginia Woolf regularly walked across it when she went to visit her sister Vanessa, at Charleston, which is probably a small dot in this photo. Beyond Firle Beacon is Lewes, where Woolf bought her baked beans and bottles of stout.

After walking for a mile or so, we saw a village in the distance. I realised that it was Alfriston and suggested that we'd better turn back and walk to the car, but my son was determined to press on and marched ahead, singing 'It's a Long Way To Tipperary'. 

My son loves singing. He has no idea that he is completely tone deaf.

The path that was supposed to cut through fields to Alfriston was flooded, so we took the long way round and walked past some idyllic, asymetrical cottages and solid, Georgian homes. It was almost the perfect, picture postcard village, but was spoiled by a constant stream of traffic.

I noticed that my son was extremely pale - he'd never walked this far in his life - so I suggested getting a taxi back to the car park. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a phone signal. The only answer was to either accost a kindly Morris Minor-owning vicar, or consume some calories.

We found the village store, where a nice woman made me a delicious sandwich that contained at least twice as much beef as I was expecting. Within minutes, I was beefed-up.

My son chose a Curly-Wurly bar and I watched the colour slowly return to his cheeks. I was unaware of the restorative properties of the Curly-Wurly.

As we left Alfriston, a pterodactyl-like silhouette circled above the flooded fields. My son had never seen a heron before and was impressed by the huge wingspan. "This is an adventure," he said. "We never know what we're going to see next. Those Disney places pretend to give you adventures, but you know what to expect."

Good, I thought, that's saved me several hundred quid and a weekend of hell at Disneyland Paris.

After a fairly steep climb, my son asked to stop and we sat down for a few minutes. I looked at the piece of grass next to me and saw that it was actually made up of many different plants, some of them barely visible, clinging on to a bedrock that was comprised of the bones of billions of prehistoric creatures. It seemed miraculous.

Then I noticed an odd, whorl-shaped object:

It was a snail, unlike any that I have found in my garden. I looked closer and realised that the whole area was littered with these tiny shells. I will be contacting the relevant authorities about the discovery of the Cochlea Steerforthum.

As we walked back, I thought of a conversation I had with a friend in the pub, yesterday evening. We both agreed that we had reached an age where we could no longer afford to squander time. We might live for another 40 years and remain in reasonable health for much of it. But we might not.

Going for a long walk on the Downs may not qualify as a 'bucket list' activity, but it had the sense of being what Frank O'Hara called the "real right thing" and that, I think, is all anyone can ask for.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Lost in Translation

Today I did a 400-mile round trip for a 15-minute meeting. I think it went well, but I'll know more in a couple of months' time.

When I got back, I decided to work out the relative cost of hiring vans and drivers to transport my books, versus buying a van of my own. A quick search on eBay yielded this result:

But although the price was attractive, the description left me none the wiser:

"Hi, this is a me Van seling me freinds behalf :
this it's a very nice and clear van inside + outside, don't be more used, last year drived only 500 mileage !

Mot is valid for half off april 2015, this week be changed new front head lamps for passinger side. Car is no rast !

Engine and gearbox working smoothly, may be the gear shift need grease, start anny time every time.

Velcome personaly visit this van, bad don't be test drive if be engine cool. Too many ''mechanic'' it's less expirience for me self, don't put full gas to cool engine !!!

This is a IVECO which factory in Italy prodact is engine very top quality for a Vans and HGV truck, Long life engine and this is 89k mileage this is nothing !!! Engine live for good owner is ower 500 k mileage with standart trip service Iveco garage, used good quality oil and parts.

Every people need fixing in GP doctors, car haved fixed from authority garage whitch understand everything.

Ok, yesterday i'm drived 50 mileage, big engine power i'm driving excelent 2450 rpm only 60 mil per hour with 5 gear. Me results is excelent big horse power van from towing heavy trailers.

New owner be very happy keeped this SWB van.

V5 and Mot certificate ready to go, half tank Diesel.

Finaly, excelent inside and outside, price for sell £1590

I wonder if Google Translate was employed, or whether it's just someone's unique brand of English? Either way, I know that anything I did in another language would be a lot worse.

Finally, on the subject of vans, here's a fine example of sensitive tabloid journalism, which I spotted in an abandoned copy of 'The Sun':

I wonder if he needs a job?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Dogfish It Was That Died

After a week of unremittingly grim, depressing weather, I didn't expect to be spending today lying on a beach with my coat off, staring at a dead dogfish. It's the little surprises that keep me going.

I was already planning to visit the Ladybird exhibition at the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill, but the Mediterranean weather was an added bonus. Standing underneath this cupola, it felt as if I was in Greece.

A 180° turn would have quickly ruined that illusion.

The exhibition was packed and instead of the usual quiet reverence, the rooms buzzed with the enthusiasm of grown-up children, recognising a once-loved but long forgotten image:

Seeing the original illustrations only increased my admiration for the artists. Even something as simple as milk being poured into a glass became a thing of beauty.

For several decades, the Ladybird illustrators were overlooked in favour of their more quirky contemporaries. But although realism of Ladybird may have been less interesting artistically, children preferred it. We didn't want sketchy drawings that alluded to the real thing; we wanted the thing itself.

As an adult, I might prefer Miroslav Šašek's London to the Ladybird one, but the child in me loves the clear, unambiguous world of the latter:

The world of Ladybird is an impossibly idyllic one. Daddy goes off to work at the office, the children walk to school, while Mummy enjoys a leisurely morning in town, chatting to the local shopkeepers.

Daddy is not having an affair and Mummy is not on valium.

Oddly enough, my early childhood was remarkably similar. The shopkeepers all knew me by name and train drivers smiled and waved when I stood by the railwayline. Terrible things may have been happening in the world at large, but not in Teddington.

Was it all the illusion of a small child? Was the real world more like this:

"Now bugger off and stop asking daft questions."

I'm not sure, but I think that Ladybird books reinforced the partial illusion that our parents tried to create when we were little: the world is a kind and safe place. Revisiting that vision can be a bittersweet experience, highlighting the disparity between our infantile hopes and the reality that awaits us.

The Ladybird world is a Platonic paradise, free of class conflict, religious antagonism or political strife. There are no terrorists, paedophiles or murderers. The occasional burgular appears, but is quickly apprehended by the local bobby on the beat. Order is restored.

What, if anything, will inspire the same nostalgia in the middle-aged of the 2040s? My older son is already nostalgic about computer games of ten years ago, so perhaps it will be dominated by obsolete technology and the characters of Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.

A friend told me that last week, the long-forgotten fax machine in her office suddenly sprang into life, after years of silence. As the ancient thermal paper slowly and noisily emerged from the rollers, my friend realised that none of her 20-something colleagues knew what a fax was.

In the corner of the office, a man in his 40s was quietly laughing to himself.

After the exhibition, we walked over to the beach and enjoyed the novelty of sunbathing in mid-February, wriggling until the pebbles reached a comfortably orthopaedic configuration. It was some time before we noticed a dead dogfish lying next to us, camouflaged against the stones.

It was as perfect as a Ladybird illustration.