Friday, November 28, 2014

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I had a slightly disconcerting experience in the gents' loo of a restaurant last night. As I walked in, several men turned round and looked at me with a mixture of incredulity and contempt. It was very unsettling.

I quickly checked myself in the mirror, but couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. The men left and I resolved not to give in to any feelings of paranoia, but in the silence that followed, I became aware of some very strange atonal piano music playing in the room.

I can safely say that I have never heard piped Webern in a public convenience before and it only served to enhance the sense of unreality. Perhaps the restaurant manager was indulging his quirky and sometimes inappropriate sense of humour.

After a brief pause, the music continued. The new movement reminded me of the soundtrack to a particularly grim Eastern Bloc animated film. Outside, I could hear some innocuous folk playing in the restuarant. It was all very odd.

Then I finally realised that the music was coming from my pocket. I must have pushed an app button on my smartphone and the strange looks from the men were a perfectly rational response to a man entering the loo with atonal music emanating from his nether regions.

It was the second of two embarrassing misunderstandings this week. The first happened at my son's ninth birthday party.

For the presentation of the cake, I dimmed the lights and put on the third side of the Beatles' White Album, which begins with the song 'Birthday'. The candles were blown out and the boys seemed to be enjoying the music and having the lights off, so I left them to it.

Unfortunately, when the parents arrived, they found their sons sitting under a table in a dark room listening to 'Revolution 9' blaring out "Number nine. Number nine. Number nine. Number nine..."

I tried to explain, but I think it only made things worse.

I shall be glad when this week is over. In addition to public embarrassment, I had to spend most of Wednesday in the A&E at Haywards Heath, after my mother had fainted at a concert. Fortunately she regained consciousness quickly, saying "Well, they weren't very good singers anyway."

The doctor wanted to keep my mother in for tests, so that they could eliminate the possibility of a blood clot. Sadly, this meant spending six hours sitting in a cubicle, listening to my mother talking non-stop about other people's ailments. At one point I suggested that she should have a sleep, but she didn't take the hint.

Perhaps I'm being churlish, but six hours of "Doris with the neck needs to be near a toilet...There are a lot of coloured people working here...Brenda didn't pay me back for that pint of milk I bought...Vera's cross because the window cleaner didn't come on Thursday..." is five hours and 45 minutes more than I can take.

The one enjoyable moment this week was visiting the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill, just as the sun was setting over the sea.

As long as there are moments like these, everything else is tolerable. Just.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Autumn Gold

I took some photos at work earlier today, as I thought the late afternoon light looked particularly appealing. For some reason, Google Plus has automatically tarted two of them up. I've no idea why and can't be bothered to find out.

My workplace isn't exactly glamorous, but even the most mundane features seem to acquire a strange beauty when the setting sun highlights the rough contours of the surfaces of buildings and objects:

I must bring a proper camera in one day and capture the post-apocalyptic splendour of my farm.

It has been an annoying week at work. A courier lost a bag of orders a few weeks ago - something I didn't discover until customers started emailing to ask where their books were. After a three week tour around the Midlands, the parcels were returned on Tuesday in a large box, along with a packet of 10,000 staples.

I think the staples were another mistake, rather than some form of recompense.

I have now switched to Royal Mail. They may have an online ordering system that makes the Enigma machine look simple, but at least I know that the books will reach their destination instead of sitting in a warehouse in Leicestershire.

I enjoy working in the countryside, but can't quite get over its oddness. On Monday a stranger asked me if I'd like to see his puppy (you could get arrested for that in London). He opened the back of a car and handed me a beautiful 13-week-old spaniel, with adoring eyes. Later, on the way home, I saw a man standing on the corner of a road with a falcon perched on his hand. I've no idea why.

On other days, I'll suddenly see a succession of people ride past in horse-drawn carriages, or spot someone casually carrying a rifle with a telescopic sight.

It's only a matter of time before I go native.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Yesterday and Today

I've started to get into the habit of taking a regular 'constitutional'. I particularly like going for a walk in the late afternoon, when the light is failing and the shadows are long. The highlight of the journey is usually a flock of sheep, but yesterday I saw a familiar-looking figure:

It was one of several effigies made by a Lewes bonfire society, ready for last night's procession. This year, they managed to alienate a sizeable number of people in both Russia and Scotland. They did  Kim Jong-un last year. I think they're gradually working their way around the globe.

I have mixed feelings about Bonfire, as it's known here. On the one hand, I enjoy the sense of anarchy and the sheer spectacle, but it also reminds me how isolated we have become as a result of my older son's difficulties. When we first moved to Lewes, I assumed that one day we would all dress up as a family and join the procession. I now realise that will never happen.

This morning, my wife and I took our younger son to the Museum of London, where he was supposed to be studying the Romans:

I don't know why, but I just can't get excited about the Romans. They came, they saw, they conquered. Then they left.

On the other hand, the prehistoric gallery was surprisingly fascinating, reminding us that elephants once grazed by the banks of the Thames, whilst people lived in straw huts in a landscape that was mainly marshland and forest. A flint tool from around 450,000 years ago was genuinely awe-inspiring.

Every gallery was really well curated and arranged in a way that created a strong sense of a narrative. My son loved it and we all resolved to make a return visit.

After the Museum of London, we walked to the Tower of London through a particularly ugly area. This picture is from Wikipedia, as I forgot to take one:

A combination of bomb damage and bad planning has largely ruined this part of London, but it's a thriving business district and we walked past countless glass office buildings, watching a succession of very earnest-looking people having meetings. In one office, the computer screensavers said "Client Focused", as if it was something special.

The thought of having to sit in a meeting, listening to humourless people talk complete bollocks on a daily basis, sent a chill through my heart. I remembered being subjected to 'brand wheels', KPIs (key performance indicators) and 'upskilling' (training). It was awful.

Fortunately, just as I becoming a little grumpy about the business world, we arrived at the Tower of London and saw this incredibly moving tribute to those who died in the First World War:

880,000 artificial poppies. One for each person who died, painstakingly placed in the ground by volunteers. 

I was also extremely moved by the huge crowd of visitors (there were several thousand when we arrived), some of whom had travelled a long way to look at the display. A few had simply come to see the spectacle, but I suspect that many were paying tribute to a lost grandfather or great-uncle, and felt that one of the poppies was theirs.

I certainly did.

N.B - Click here for some stunning photos of the full display.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Steel Works

The best book I found today almost ended up in the bin, as it was hidden away in a box of Reader's Digest titles. Fortunately, I spotted it just in time and a brief flick through confirmed that I'd found a gem. It's a collection of photos of the northern industrial town, Consett.

To quote from the book's blurb:

"For 140 years Consett in County Durham was synonymous with iron and steel. Then in 1980 the works were shut down and subsequently dismantled by the largest demolition projection in Europe. The town was left with a 650 acre hole in its centre, not to mention a legacy of unemployment and demoralisation."

I hadn't heard of the book's editor, Julian Germain, but as soon as I visited his website I recognised his photos of classrooms around the world, from a book that has been featured in several weekend supplements. I shall be adding that to my Christmas list.

Steel Works is divided into two sections. The first features photographs from Consett when it was a thriving industrial town in the 1960s. Contributors include Don McCullin and Tommy Harris.

The second part looks at post-industrial Consett, a town that seems abandoned even though its inhabitants still live there.

Here is a selection:

Saturday, November 01, 2014

The Light That Failed

There are two parts to my job. One involves working in idyllic surroundings, with a view of the South Downs in the distance, listing quirky antiquarian books in a pleasant, weatherboarded office.

The other requires long periods of manual drudgery, sorting through huge deliveries of stock, trying to push rusting, back-breakingly heavy wheelie bins along muddy ground that feels like the shore of a tidal estuary.

Although they have lids, the bins still collect an extraordinary amount of rainwater and when I start to move them, they expel their brackish liquid from a small hole, like nervous sheep.

Next to the bins, there is a collection of odd machines, haphazardly mounted on planks. I have no idea what they are for:

During the last six months, I've watched the view from my workplace gradually change:

Autumn has clearly arrived and the late afternoon light is noticeably weaker. I now have to find my book orders by torchlight, as the solitary flourescent bulb barely makes an impression on the rows of shelves.

At the moment, I have a friend working with me. He has a regular role in a BBC radio soap opera, but when his character is going through a quiet period, he logs books with me.

I think he'd rather be acting, but it's good to have some company for a few days.

The temperature has been in the early 20s (or 70s, if you prefer) recently, but soon it will plummet and the books in the warehouse will feel like blocks of ice cream. I'm not looking forward to that. I can usually handle ten books before my fingers begin to seize up.

Yesterday I found a dead rat lying in a grass verge. I recoiled in horror and turned the other way, where I spotted a £1 coin lying on the ground. I lead a fairytale existence.