Category Archives: musings

Young man in a railway station café.

Glances flick around the noisy room: noisy both in sound and vision, the bustle and hiss of the people and the coffee machines in the ears, the visual disarray of bags, tables, suitcases and chairs, and amid it all, a well of calm, he sits there, not fiddling with anything. Every pair of eyes, sending darting looks around alighting on the scribblers, the internet junkies tap-tapping on their tablets, the parents wearily calming tired toddlers: every restless gaze lands on him and pauses, at least, before flicking on. His earthy red hair, half-tamed into directed disorder, the lightly freckled pale of his early summer skin, the youthful angularity of his profile silhouetted by the early morning sun, all offer no reason to look away, but it was his grace, his contentment to just sit and be.. that was what kept you looking, risking the awkwardness of being noticed noticing.  Plenty of pairs of roaming eyes coursed the public space  looking for a safe place to land and stopped on him, and when he inevitably looked back, it wasn’t a look of pride in his attraction or of hostility in defence of his privacy; more of curiosity. Like he’d just answered the door.




I stood there, smiling that incongruous smile that you do when you’re not ok, where all the muscles do the right things (or at least, they do if you’re good at it) but you know with the certainty of having seen it many times in others, that the eyes are not going to lie for you. Lips are slick liars. Put your lips around the shapes that make phrases like “Get home safe” and “Was good to see you” and they will do it with all the nonchalance of “Move along now” and “Nothing to see here”, but you can’t stop your eyes just going on and on and on with the pitiful “Don’t go” and “But I still want you.”

Like I want him to see any of that. I don’t. So I blinked and looked away and made goodbye a blunted moment of brief and forced good cheer, one that still felt like an age of peeling and splitting painted-on bravado.

I played music in the car, stuff I know so well that I sing along without thinking; upbeat stuff that doesn’t let you sink into any long outbreaths.

At home, feeling like I’d made it, cleared the danger point and ready to push forward in some new direction. Maybe a couple of drinks with some friends, maybe do some work, straighten up the flat, maybe sort out some of these things lying around.
These things. Things you just somehow hold on to, not noticing for ages that you’re holding on, until you realise how hard it is to let go of them. Like the presence that’s just wrapped itself around me: the scent he left in my clothes that he wore, now lying limp in my hands, in my arms and against my cheek: rocking with me from side to side, an invisible man materialising inside my empty clothes, here in my empty arms, giving me hollow consolation for the vacancy he left in me.

Managing Alexandra England

Freelancing means there’s no difference between the company and you. For me, this means firstly that I can bitch about myself over a cup of tea, but be magnanimous and forgive myself because I’m so good at what I do. Secondly, it means I read far too many productivity and self-management blogs to try and get my staff under control. They’re great – my favourites are Lifehacker and Stepcase Lifehack, both of which have lots of great advice, although not very often the advice I really need: “stop reading blogs and get on with something!”.

One piece of advice they frequently repeat is the need to manage our online identities, to make sure that what people see about us online isn’t damaging, and is hopefully helpful to us in getting the jobs, clients, partners and lifestyles we want. This is often a two-pronged effort, consisting of a “landing page” website (mine’s under construction) and a tightening, throttling even, of social media. The logic says that if our future bosses, partners and colleagues are all googling us to dredge the dirt on our misdeeds, then we should get there first and tidy up.

I got curious – what does the web really have to say about me then? There’s a site called webmii that rakes up everything it can find on a name you give it: on my name it found a couple of pictures of me that I use for profiles, and my profiles at places like Facebook, LinkedIn, Xing and so on. So far, so innocuous.

Google had more to say, and also found my profiles and comments on:
mac forums
glue translation forums
yahoo answers

and comments on a board where I thanked Dashama (my online yoga teacher) for her free yoga lessons. It also found this blog, and my previous online home, Bolts from the Black.

Ok, deep breath, that is actually quite a lot. There are details about almost every aspect of my life. A total stranger could find out very very quickly, (even more quickly now that I’ve collected all those links in one place!) that I’m a Quaker and a non-theist, a linguist, teacher and translator, a film, book, comic, music and comedy lover, a traveller, a student, a divorcee, newbie aikidoka and a person who starts things she sometimes doesn’t finish. But what didn’t it find?

Hate. There isn’t any hate, for me or from me: I have argued with racists and I’ve told a Yahoo asker that he really should write his own university essays, but that’s all friendly, open-minded stuff. There’s no badmouthing, no threats, no lies. There’s drunkenness, there’s a great deal of silliness and friends, and there are some really, really, unflattering pictures. If a prospective client were to look me up, would they, after discovering all of these things about me, still be interested? And does it matter?

No. For me, it doesn’t actually matter, because it’s all true. It is, however badly judged and embarrassing, all me. Maybe I could conceal it from people, and maybe they would be more likely to give me what I want – but I would have basically lied to get it.

I come from a small town in Wales where your business is everybody’s business, and I wasn’t brought up to do things in public that I don’t want my mum to find out about – there is really no hope of keeping things secret forever in a small town. If the internet has made us a global village, then we’re all living in the online equivalent of my small town, knowing the neighbours talk and hoping they aren’t saying anything bad. From experience, I can confirm that there’s nothing you can do to stop them. All you can do is watch your mouth, exercise a bit of self-control, stand by what you’ve done if you had good reason and apologise sincerely if you didn’t.

So, potential clients, bosses, colleagues, partners, please feel free. If you find things you don’t like, then I’m glad for both of us that we’ll never be forced to upset each other in person. If you find things you like, good! There’s plenty more where that came from, because that’s the real deal.

As Dan from Gloucester once wrote on my boiler, “Happiness is free – fill your boots!”

How not to do religion.

Religion is mostly uncool in general. Either there’s the romanticised Roman Catholic imagery (look at me playing with the etymology there. That’s what passes for cool in my world, oh yes) in things like ‘Romeo and Juliet‘ and ‘The Departed’, which we all know doesn’t come from belief, it comes from movie-and-tv world, in which depression, egomaniacal behaviour and drug abuse can all be quite cool and admirable, or there’s religious belief in the real world, which is mostly, as Dylan Moran has pointed out, based around tea. Not to mention quite incongruous. It doesn’t add up. Real World + Invisible Deity = Someone Looking Silly, or at least someone looking extremely serious, daring anyone to risk pointing out that they may possibly be being silly. There’s melodrama, or there’s boring.

Most religious groups do sort of divide up along those lines, too. You get the serious, dusty ones; the Wesleyans and the Church of England, Chapel, that sort of thing; and at the other end of it you get the happy-clappy seventh-day-pentecost alleluja evangelists. There’s space in between for every shade of ridiculousness except for Marcus Brigstocke. Mine is, of course, the one that manages to be both very very serious and more ridiculous than most of the others: the Quakers. And I don’t even fit in there.

Quakers are an odd bunch. The gist of it is; everyone has their own relationship with the divine (hereafter referred to as the Thing, to avoid causing offence to people who don’t believe in God. Of which I am one, but fortunately I’m not at all offended by any of this post), which means that we don’t need an intermediary to tell us how to be religious, so we all get together to sit in silence, mostly. Everyone, having their own relationship to the Thing, has their own truth, and so we don’t need to agree to believe exactly the same thing. If you’re conducting your own relationship with the Thing, it’s a 24/7 thing, and so you don’t get to cop out of anything by saying it’s not communing-with-the-Thing time (e.g. Sunday morning): you have to do it all the time. Practically, this tends to mean various levels of success/failure in not lying, fighting, gambling, getting drunk, being selfish or showing off. It really honestly doesn’t have anything do to with porridge. Although I like porridge a lot.

I’m mostly terrible at those things, especially at not being selfish and even worse at not getting drunk. Okay, and not showing off is really hard too. Okay, I’m only good at the not gambling, and I’m too choice-phobic for it anyway, I go tharn in the supermarket if my usual milk isn’t there and I have to pick one. I would claim to be good at not fighting, but then I’d have hexed myself on the not lying thing: ‘good at not fighting’ is not the same as ‘rubbish at fighting.’ The whole thing would be much easier if porridge-eating was part of it, I might shock myself and succeed at it. But the thing is, I’ve got used to trying and failing within this particular set of parameters, banging my head against this particular brick wall, so to speak. Just because I don’t believe in an actual proper God doesn’t seem like enough of a reason to quit bloodying my head on this reassuring, known, hard stone wall, and go seek a new one. Realising that I hate most mainstream movies hasn’t stopped me from paying a tenner to sit in a sticky-carpeted hollywood temple resenting the crisp-eaters behind me and hating my own popcorn-scoffing habits (I don’t even like popcorn), so I don’t see any arguments against sticking with my religion, with or without the God bit in it. Besides, there aren’t even any Quakers here, so it means I get to sit here with my Richard Dawkins book, and selfishly drink all the tea. Whilst eating porridge.

Where are the really, really un-cool comics?

I’ve just knocked back two whole series of Peep Show, and I’m raising a solitary glass of Ribena to the onscreen distress, discomfiture and other disses of David Mitchell. What a total dork. What a guy.

In principle it’s no surprise for comedy to be filled with people who don’t seem to get on well with reality: comedy is famously a place for exposing your vulnerabilities, testing your boundaries and so on, but British comedy (in my obviously baseless, biased and probably irrelevant opinion) seems to be particularly based around the public parading of shame and embarrassment. From Del Boy falling through the bar to Alan Partridge stabbing himself in the foot and Fry and Laurie’s Hedge Sketch, British comedy has a moment of mortification for pretty much any taste. There’s a BUT, though.

These people are pretending. They’re not one hundred percent inside those idiots they portray: maybe they’ve had moments of standing in the shoes of the incompetent, but not a life sentence. David Jason’s been in lots of other things, playing lots of different people. He’s not really a proper custard-case. Alan Partridge? I’ve seen Steve Coogan on Parky’s sofa, all leaning back and laughing, like people do when they’re perfectly normal, and not a loser, so I’m not going to believe he’s one of us. Fry and Laurie: who plays the social incompetent? Exactly. Doctor Bloody House himself. Doctor I’m-so-clever-I-get-lonely, Doctor You-all-forgive-me-for-being-an-egomaniac-because-you-fantasise-about-getting-in-my-pants House, Mister Sark of Astic, a genuine stottering invertebrate? Don’t make me laugh. No, really. Don’t, because it isn’t FAIR. These guys can stop. It’s just an act, they’re not in fact, embarrassed to be themselves. They get to knock off and go back to being cool. They’re like the posh girlfriend Jarvis Cocker sings to in ‘Common People’, who plays poverty for kicks, because in reality she has a choice.

If I was a completely different kind of person, I could now sound off about it being actually quite like pretending to be a member of any other socially disadvantaged group just for the sake of a bit of entertainment at their expense, and that discussion would go on and on until someone mentioned Hitler, and then I’d get blamed because this is my blog and I started it. And I’ve just written ‘Hitler’ anyway, so it is, definitely, now, my fault. But I’m not that kind of person, despite the Hitler comment; I’m the kind of person who just smiles and wonders what it is, whether I have really made another gaffe and I won’t realise it until I wake up in the night surreptitiously using my fingers to smooth out my upper lip to stop myself from cringing in the dark, or whether they are laughing with me. They never ever ever bloody are. Even David Bloody Mitchell betrays us on the panel shows. Okay, they’re scripted, but still – and there have been interviews, too, in which he’s come across as treacherously well-balanced.

I know that these comedy characters, just like film heroes and wizards and baddies, are not real. They’re based on real qualities, though, that we all have in life to some degree. Heroic people in the real world aren’t like in the movies, but we admire them. Real evil and selfish people aren’t movie–character bad, but we try to avoid them if we can get away with it without there being a scene. Why is it then, that if you’re afraid of other people and you tend to want to apologise for your skin and everything in it, that’s not, in life, a scaled-down version of the funny and charming movie version, but instead just, well, somewhere between pitiable and contemptible, depending on the charitableness of the cooler onlooker. Like, for example, comedians, who can see straight through us, take us off to perfection and then flick back to relaxed amiability. Bum-beans and reprobates.

So, what do we do? I can hardly join up with my own kind. ‘Flake Pride’ isn’t going to happen, because I’m as ashamed of them as I am of me, and they feel exactly the same way. I think. Obviously I haven’t asked, but there’s no union and you can’t select ‘Sad Sack’ on the census forms. So we just laugh. After all, it is funny. Social incompetents trying to get through life and cocking it up is funny. Even I can see that.

Maybe some of them are really lonely, bored, hoping to make a connection with someone else who doesn’t ‘get’ the world. Maybe it’s all of the comedians and most of the laughers, and there are no really cool people at all. Maybe we’re ALL uncool, and in the closet about it, hiding our true gawk behind successful performances, to varying degrees (which would explain Mr Mitchell’s apparently laid-back style on camera and allow me to return to thinking he’s The Real Thing). I think this is probably a ridiculously over-optimistic idea/hope/fantasy, but I’m going to cling to it like a barnacle to the first rock it finds, not knowing if there will ever be another. If anybody else wants to cling to my rock with me, you’re more than welcome: out yourself as socially incompetent and, if we can get more than three, then I’m up for a Flake Pride march in November (reliable weather, and we look good in coats). Maybe David Mitchell would open for us.

Warning: contains me, sulking.

Life was uncertain, tense and in limbo, and then I got a call to say that my father, with whom I have had very limited contact, had had a stroke and wasn’t expected to survive long. It wasn’t exactly unexpected, but I still hadn’t expected it.

The ash cloud put the stoppers on any ideas of flying over, and prices did the same for the train idea. Driving over alone, the fourteen-hour journey from Hanover through Germany, Belgium, Holland, France and England to Barnstaple, would have been difficult-to-impossible. Ela borrowed her ex’s car (we’ve never really hit it off, mostly because I’ve never been very nice to him: he however, immediately agreed to use the aforementioned expensive train for his own weekend plans so we could have his car. I am a shameful lowlife), rearranged her work life, and set off with me at three in the morning. We, or rather, she, drove and drove until six the next evening in the hope of catching him, even though I knew that the chance wasn’t high, and that in the context of our non-relationship all this looked a lot like attention-seeking melodrama. When we stopped, an hour or so from our destination, I charged up my phone and received a message telling me that he had died at six in the morning, and everyone had gone back to their homes.

Travelodge baths are so shallow that you can’t cover your legs, although maybe that wouldn’t have been true before I turned tubbo. They also don’t give you bubblebath, only soap. Bubblebath is important on two counts: one; small pockets of air insulate the water against heat loss and enable long soaks to remain warm soaks, and two; small pockets of air in large numbers become opaque. I don’t want to see my body while I’m trying to relax in the bath, thanks.

Ela slept the sleep of those who turn their lives upside-down for others, and I cried the unjustifiable tears of the confused and self-consciously self-centred. I could have had a real relationship with him, if I had got back in touch. I told myself I had been protecting myself, but I could hear from the tone of my voice that even I didn’t believe my crap anymore. Weakling scaredycats who hide away in another country and leave fathers to live and die with rejection because of their own childish fear of adults kicking off, those children don’t deserve grownup treats like bubblebath.

So today, I will inconvenience Patrick to the same degree as Ela, hiring a car and returning to the UK to parade my self-indulgent sorrow at my father’s funeral on Monday. I will be honest: I will hang my head in shame: they will think it is respect., I will wear black, as I always do, and people will think I am grieving for my father. I, as always, will be grieving for the better person I wish I could have been.

Ebooks vs. Paper

Ebooks vs. Paper

Not really a battle.

I read ebooks.   I am, after many years of walking into things because my book was more interesting than the world I was walking around in, now a traitor to the book-lover community.  A turncoat. I now walk into things on the street not because I was staring at my book, but because I was staring intently at my mobile phone.

There are a number of reasons why I read ebooks:

One, I’m impatient. I can usually have the ebook NOW, whereas if I want the paper one I have to make time to go into town and buy it, or worse still, wait for it to arrive in the post.

Two, I’m still impatient. If I get bored with a book and want another one, it’s nice not to have to wait until I can get home and exchange one paper brick for another – and once you get used to ebooks, the pulped-wood variety style do start to seem a bit brickish. Where was I ? Ah yes: three.

Three, reading ebooks reduces the amount of stuff I have to carry around, because I can read them on the mobile phone I  carry anyway, hence no paper brick and no new gadget. If you have a rucksack filled with computer and books and assorted important “stuff” on your back most of the time, then this starts to seem really quite important.

Four: lots of books nowadays are full of links to websites, and if I read on a computer-type gadget, I can just click on the links directly.  With paper, I need to have even more paper in order to write a list of websites to type into my browser later.

Ok, maybe the last reason is a little bit geeky.  It doesn’t apply to works of great literature, for sure, but it’s a factor for me. However, I still have a fair-sized library of paper brick-type books, and I’m not going to be getting rid of it anytime soon. Not just because I already have the books and it would be a waste to throw them out, but also because there are still some situations where reading is important and paper’s convenient: there’s no way I’m putting an e-reader in the bathroom.

In the end, we’ll buy both.  I don’t think this just because I love books and gadgets, although I do love books and gadgets.  I say it because TV didn’t kill radio, video didn’t kill TV, and the internet hasn’t killed off its predecessors either, so it looks most likely that we’ll all buy both, to varying degrees. This war isn’t going to happen, at least not between paper and gadget: if there’s a battle, it’s gadget – gadget.  I’d bet my iPhone Kindle library on it.