Monday, November 26, 2012

an awful lot has changed in 40 years!

At the end of next month, Moira+I will be celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary.
Sometimes, the forty years seem to have passed by in a flash and, at other times, it seems an absolute age since our wedding day.
I remember being given Alvin Toffler’s book “Future Shock” as a (sort of) wedding gift by an American student friend, Mark Lang. It was written in 1970 and mine was a third re-print published in 1972 (and the price on this paperback was the princely sum of 50p – decimalisation had been introduced the previous year!). I recently came across the book again and decided to re-read it (if I recall correctly, I actually only read about half the book first time round)… and what a fascinating read it proved to be. As you might anticipate, although he did put his finger on a number of key indicators, there’s been much other stuff that he failed to touch on. For example (and very surprisingly in my view): any reference to climate change – in whatever form you might want to address it (or any significant reference to the environment in general) – was almost entirely absent… the closest he came to touching on the subject was in a throw-away line about pollution when he added (almost as an after-thought): “perhaps even melting the polar icecaps”. He failed to predict (amongst other matters) how personal computers and the internet have come to dominate our lives – although, towards the very end of the book he did say this: “As computerized information systems ramify… it would tap into a worldwide pool of data stored in libraries, corporate files, hospitals, retail stores, banks, government agencies and universities”.

The book made me realise just HOW MUCH had changed over the intervening 40 years… so much so that I kept scribbling notes, inside the back cover, of the number of new things that had become part of lives during the course of marriage (note: NOT introduced specifically to keep our marriage “on track”, you understand!). Toffler, and the experts he quoted, seemed to think that some form of robotics was going to rule our lives by this stage of the 21st century. Little did he know (well, not in the way they had anticipated anyway)!
Obviously, the list is far from being comprehensive – but, once I’d started scribbling, it was very difficult to stop! These are just a FEW of my items (in no particular order… read slowly and digest!):
1.       THE INTERNET (oh my goodness! COMPLETELY life-changing for everyone!).
2.       Personal computers (whoever would have thought!? I recall a brand new, HUGE computer taking over an ENTIRE floor of the architectural block at college at this time for a massive project undertaken by final-year town planning students… but all it was able to do was to produce punch-cards!). And to think, Moira+I both HAVE to have a computer (what would my parents have thought?)!
3.       E-mails (and even they’re on the way out, perhaps?).
4.       Wireless (and satellite) technology in general.
5.       Mobile/smart phones (+cameras!)… complete with and iPods and iPads etc etc.
6.       Digital cameras.
7.       Social network sites which allow us to communicate with hundreds of friends… facebook, twitter and the like.
8.       Communication generally (eg. Skype which is something that used to be predicted in sci-fi cartoons when we were children - except that we saw it in terms of telephone lines and televisions rather than computers). Ironically, although there are so many ways of keeping in touch, many of which are totally brilliant, many of these things also cause more isolation.
9.       SatNav systems.
10.   Digital books.
11.   iTunes, MP3-players – “downloading” music, radio programmes etc.
12.   Instant global news.
13.   Instant publishing/blogs/websites (surely not!).
14.   Television channels (and iPlayer technology) where you can watch programmes at times convenient to YOU.
15.   Globalisation – with all its benefits and ALL its downsides.
16.   Travel and mobility (the world has become a very small place).
17.   Disposable/throw-away society – rather than mend+repair.
18.   Terrorism/suicide bombers.
19.   Society’s changing attitudes towards gays/same sex marriage etc.
20.   Offices without “designated” typists (and the changing face of the “typewriter”)!
21.   Google, Wikipedia etc (and access to information)(oh good grief!).
22.   Banking (cheque cards and holes in the wall).
23.   In Vitro Fertilization (IVF)(a subject close to our hearts), keyhole surgery and other medical wonders.
24.   Climate Change awareness.
25.   And, of course, the so-called celebrity status (don’t get me started!)?
But I’m absolutely certain I’ve forgotten a whole host of other stuff!


Sunday, November 25, 2012

november books

More book stuff:
The Moving Toyshop (Edmund Crispin): Light, amusing, clever crime novel set in 1938… eminently readable and its Oxford setting gave me a very nostalgic yearning to be back in the city. I also absolutely loved the cover design by Rowena Leroc!
Non-Places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity (Marc Auge): I admit this is a rather strange book choice, but I was intrigued by the description the title. This is essentially an extended essay by the Director of the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. It was written in 1995 and deals with “our” ever-increasing time spent in supermarkets, airports, on motorways or in front of TVs. I have to admit that some of the book simply “went over my head” and I found stuff such as ancestral practices in African villages somewhat tedious! However, it also contained some fascinating observations which, with the current even greater use of the internet and the introduction of social network sites, could be (and, subsequently, probably has been) massively extended.
The Case of the Gilded Fly (Edmund Crispin): Having enjoyed my first Crispin novel (see above!), I opted for more, predictable, light escapism! This time set in wartime Oxford of 1940 (although you’d hardly have known). I don’t even like crime novels… but still enjoyed being reminded of the city.  
In Search of the 40 Days Road (Michael Asher): I first read this in 1990. Asher first went to the Sudan in 1979 as a volunteer English teacher and became fascinated by the desert and the lives of the tribesmen. He ended up acquiring his own camels and living a nomadic life in the desert. As the title suggests, the book tells of his search for the “lost” “Forty Days Road” (ancient trading route). Beautifully written and completely captivating (and poignant in his descriptions of how the desert, through climate change, is gradually taking over what used to be fertile areas). Certainly, a part of me yearns to experience the desert for myself someday(?) – but perhaps not quite in Asher’s way! I loved this book (again!).   
Future Shock (Alvin Toffler): Another re-read (inscribed by my American friend Mark Lang just before Moira and I got married 40 years ago!). Strangely, after coming across the term “supermodernity” in Auge’s book (see above!), Toffler kept on referring to “super-industrialism”! As the title suggests, it’s a book about the rate of change in society (written in 1970). Lots of fascinating stuff but, inevitably, also lots of things that now seem rather strange (to me at least!), such as predicting “extensive submarine communities” and “professional parenthood”. Virtually no mention - apart from a couple of throw-away sentences in a book of some 500 pages - of climate change (or whatever you might choose to call it) and no real appreciation that personal computers and something called “the worldwide web” was going to transform our lives (although there was this somewhat oblique reference: “machines and man… will be scattered across the globe, linked together by amazingly sensitive, near-instantaneous communications”)! Thought-provoking – even today!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

women bishops

So, the Church of England has voted against allowing women Bishops.
It took over 7 hours of debate and, predictably, there were vigorous arguments from both sides before the decision was finally made… but I really can’t quite believe it. It was passed by the Bishops and the Clergy, but rejected by the Laity (more “yesses” but failing to obtain the necessary 2/3rds majority).
It seems that the evangelical and catholic wings of the church have “won”.
I can’t quite believe that it’s been 20 years since the Church of England agreed to authorise women priests (it took another two years before the first women priests were actually ordained). I was a Churchwarden at St Michael and All Angels church in Summertown, Oxford in the mid-1970s and can certainly remember a church parochial church council (PCC) meeting when we voted, as a parish church, in favour of women priests… that was some 37 years ago(?)!
I’m afraid today’s vote has left me feeling saddened, annoyed and frustrated… words almost fail me.
No doubt, there will some friends (not many!) who will vigorously defend the decision. Others will tell that, whichever way the vote went, a split in the Anglican Church was inevitable (I agree!).
As for me, I think this marks the end of my time worshipping in the Anglican Church.
A separate, personal, lonely journey starts today.
I don’t think I’ll be alone.

Monday, November 19, 2012

weekends with friends

I love living in the city (well, I love living in Bristol). I love it that I can be walking along the harbourside within ten minutes of leaving our front door. I love the buzz, activity, culture and art of the city.
I could never live in the “country” and, although there are times I yearn for a life overlooking the sea, I know that, in reality, I would always be pulled back to the city.
However, Moira+I have just spent one of those magical weekends in the country (and within a 20 minute drive of the sea) with our great friends Jez+Mags in Devon – where the sun shone brilliantly, where easy conversations continued as if we saw each other every day, where the scenery was stunning (waking up to the sun casting its rays across open fields) and where food+drink seemed inexhaustible!
An extra bonus was getting together with more very special friends(!), Gail+Ian, for Sunday lunch.
Times for celebration.
Photo: Ian, Gail, Mags, Moira+Jez sunning themselves outside the Crabshell Inn, Kingsbridge.
PS: Over the past two weekends, Moira and I have been well and truly spoiled – last Saturday, we met up for lunch with yet more lovelies: Gail+Ian (again!), Ken+Debby and Diane+Steve at Le Muset in Clifton, Bristol.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

joan armatrading+chris wood at colston hall

Really enjoyed the Joan Armatrading/Chris Wood concerts at Colston Hall last night.
Wood was essentially the “warm-up” act for Armatrading’s nationwide tour – but I’m a great fan of his, so this was a real bonus for me and he was excellent (particular favourites: “Hollow Point”, “My Darling’s Downsized” and “Hard”).
This was the first time I’d seen Armatrading live and she was pretty amazing (performing with three other musicians) - she played for an hour and forty minutes straight through. I love her voice, but hadn’t realised just what an exceptional guitarist she was. I actually prefer her “ballads”(?), but her range is quite amazing – jazz, rock, blues. ALL performed stunningly well (particular favourites: “Love and Affecton”, of course, and “Willow” – which she didn’t perform!).
Until yesterday, I hadn’t appreciated that she was brought up in Brookfields, Birmingham (now part of Handsworth - where I too was brought up) from the age of 7… she’s only a year or so younger than me so, who knows, we might have met as kids in the local sweet shop?!
PS: I’m at a loss to understand how the couple sitting next to me spent some £60 on tickets, but decided to miss Chris Woods (and another local singer-songwriter) altogether and then left after just 25 minutes of Armatrading – and half way through her most famous song?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

BIG pens and pencils

We’ve been doing a lot of sorting out at home recently and, in the course of this, I’ve rediscovered two beautiful writing/drawing implements (see above!).
I’m determined to put them to (more) regular use again.
One is a Montblanc fountain pen – a Meisterstuck 149 fountain pen indeed, complete with (according to the Montblanc website) “18K gold nib, rhodium-plated inlay, barrel and cap made of precious resin inlaid with Montblanc emblem, gold-plated clip and rings”. Moira won this through a crossword competition in “The Independent” newspaper in 1989 but, given the pen’s huge thickness, she found she couldn’t really write with it herself – and therefore passed it on me!! I’m afraid I haven’t used it for several years. According to the Montblanc website, a new Meisterstuck 149 fountain pen would cost the princely sum of £535!
The other wonderful piece of graphic equipment is a Copic Graphic Pen Design Pencil (isn’t Google wonderful – the only marking on it says “Made in Japan”!): “a heavy metal pencil ideal for sketching, design and layout work. Simple push-button mechanism advances the lead; top-button unscrews to reveal the integrated lead sharpener; the pencil is approximately 14mm in diameter and 120mm long; it weighs in at a satisfying but usable 46 grams. The 5mm diameter lead is a smooth dense 6B, perfect for creating a wide range of tone”. Interestingly, the “Cult Pens” website also states: “we suspect that this item isn't really a Copic product. It's imported from Japan by Transotype, the European distributor for Copic, and featured in their Copic catalogues - but is almost certainly made by someone else. We do know however that it is stamped 'Made in Japan' and that it's very lovely”! I was given the pencil perhaps 15 years ago (by a consultant or “sales rep”, I really can’t remember) during my time as an architect. It really is a beautiful sketching pencil – especially for quick, big, bold drawings – but I think I’ll need to use it on much larger sheets of paper than my A4 sketchbooks! Today’s price from Cult Pens is £23.14.  
Moira’s just hinted that we should perhaps be trying to sell the Montblanc on eBay. Perhaps she’s right (but I really don’t want to!).

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

US presidential elections 2012

They’ve been voting in the USA today.
I’ve been remembering this time four years ago when, after something of a rollercoaster ride, Barack Obama became the first black president of the USA. I recall how relieved I was that the somewhat sickening “God-bless-America” rhetoric of the Bush years was finally over. I also recall holding back the tears listening to Obama’s inaugural speech in January 2009.
Clearly, given the world’s financial crisis, it’s been difficult for Obama to push through his policies (especially given the frustrating, Republican majority in the Senate).
The fact remains that, as far as I’m concerned, I feel far “safer” with Obama in charge compared with the rhetoric of his Republican opponent, for example: "I love America's greatness… America got it right… This is the greatest nation in the history of the Earth, and there is no reason the president of the United States should go around the world apologising for America".
Romney frightens me. His views on abortion, stem cells, climate change, foreign policy (and attitudes towards the rest of the world), gun-control, pro-business, pro-rich and a whole host of other matters.
My good friend Steve Cox posted the following on facebook today:
“To my dear American friends, please see sense today. Forget those deep genetic beliefs in The Frontier and Manifest Destiny, put aside the obsession with guns, gays and God and acknowledge that the rhetoric is only that, Obama is not a Marxist nor will the country go to hell if he gets 4 more years. He would barely register as a liberal democrat in a European setting. It matters to us all that the US thrives and takes its place in the world but not with the false belief they have a God given right to run it.
Obama it must be, four more years of hopey changey stuff, please”.

I couldn’t agree more!
Normally, I’ve only been too keen to listen to the BBC’s World Service and to keep up to date with the very latest news on the political ups and downs… but, actually, I stopped listening some days ago – not because I’m not interested, but because I fear that Romney MIGHT win (if only Obama had “won” the first televised debate!).
I think the thing that I find most frightening about the US presidential election has been the ridiculous amount of money that has been poured into the process - each of the candidates has spent AT LEAST $1BILLION (yes, a billion!) on this election.
It seems that, in order to compete in US politics, you need bucket-loads of cash!

Monday, November 05, 2012

october/november books 2012

More books:
The Red Pony (John Steinbeck): A short book (only some 95 pages) in four distinct, stand-alone chapters and written in 1933. Essentially, it deals with the reality of life in the Californian valleys of the pre-war years through the lives of a 10-year old boy, his mother and father, his grandfather and a horse expert/working hand on a ranch – the relationships (and promises) between young and old. I liked it. 
The Dignity of Difference – How to Avoid the Clash of Civilisations (Jonathan Sacks): Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth) wrote this book in 2002. 2001 began with the United Nations Year of Dialogue between Civilisations but the tragedy of 9/11 only intensified the danger caused by religious differences around the world. This is an impressive, wise and challenging book by a “good man”. Sacks is far from denying that religion is a big part of the human problem today, but he wants to adapt it so that it can become part of the solution. He wants to celebrate the differences among religious traditions and use them to enlarge, not stunt, our humanity. An informative, inspiring and radical book. I really liked what he had to say.
Kafka on the Shore (Haruki Murakami): This is our latest Book Group book and my first Murakami book. I found it a compelling read and finished it 500plus page book in less than a week. It tells two apparently-unconnected stories following the exploits of a 15 year-old boy, Kafka, who runs away from home and a wartime evacuee boy, Nakata, who ends up in a coma and wakes up “not very bright” a few weeks later. Complicated, intriguing and very readable. Apparently, this is far from Murakami’s best work and so, on this basis, I look forward to enjoying a few more of his books over the coming months/years.
Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer): As the title suggests, the book comprises letters, poetry and papers written during Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp (where he was condemned to death and hanged in April 1945). Perhaps understandably, there is a marked difference between the letters he wrote to his family and those sent to his friends – but all have a poignancy, optimism and resilience which reflect his deep faith.
Conversations on Ethics (Alex Voorhoeve): We’ve been using this as our Ithaca study book for discussion over our weekly meals. I don’t think I’ve studied or read ANY books on philosophy or ethics and so was looking forward to launching myself into this one. Sadly, I kept finding myself unable to follow the intellectual arguments outlined in the book! Time after time, I just felt as if the book had been written in code – and I had very little idea as to how to de-code it! The conversations were very much on the basis of intellectual-to-intellectual (with perhaps a degree of them trying to out-do each other). Although our own group discussions were helpful in trying to decipher a basic understanding, I ended up feeling rather inadequate and that my brain needed scrambling – subjectivism, practical rationality, hypothetical imperatives, emotivism, utilitarianism, contractualism, moral motivation, practical normativity and, of course, vindicatory genealogy of truth and truthfulness! I really didn’t enjoy this book!

Sunday, November 04, 2012

more opposition to gove’s proposed english baccalaureate

I’ve previously expressed my great concerns about Gove’s English Baccalaureate proposals (in January 2011 and September 2012).
Under his scheme, pupils who achieve a GCSE grade C or better in English, Maths, a Language, two Sciences and History or Geography will achieve the EBacc. Subjects such as music, art, drama, design, technology and religious studies do not count.
I was therefore delighted to see (not before time!) that leading figures in the arts world have now also expressed their deep concern. Sir Nicholas Hytner (Director, National Theatre), Sir Nicholas Serota (Director of the Tate), Julian Lloyd Webber (musician), Richard Rogers (architect), Sir David Hare (playwright) and Grayson Perry (artist) are among the cultural figureheads fearful about the impact of excluding creative subjects from the core qualification at 16 (as reported in yesterday’s Guardian).
The fear is that many schools, particularly state schools, will marginalise arts subjects if they don’t count towards the EBacc. It’s all very well for a spokeswoman for the Department for Education to claim that “the English baccalaureate does not prevent any school from offering GCSEs in art and design, dance, drama and music. We have been clear that pupils should take the GCSEs that are right for them” – but, frankly, this is poppycock! At a time when school league tables are seen to be the defining factor in determining a school’s “worth” for parents (wrongly in my view), schools WILL inevitably focus on matters that will enhance their league table standings – and, clearly, will very largely revolve around its EBacc success levels.  
How much more damage will Mr Gove be able to wreak on the UK’s education system?
Also pity the poor children, teachers and parents who will face even more confusion and worry when a subsequent government wants to try to repair the damage!
PS: This article by Grayson Perry, that appeared in the Guardian on Friday, says it all for me.

Friday, November 02, 2012

paper cinema: the odyssey

“Just saw that the Paper Cinema are in Bristol this week. You should definitely go catch them if you can, they are brilliant...”.
This was the simple message I received yesterday from my amazing great mate/art and music guru/mentor/encourager Si Smith.
On the basis that, from my viewpoint, Si has NEVER been wrong over very many years (eg. on music alone: Juliet Turner, Bill Wells+Aidan Moffat, John Martyn, Dakota Suite, Bon Iver, Luke Leighfield, Jose Vanders, Lobelia and, of course Guy Garvey on Radio6 plus Elbow… to name just a few!), Moira managed to buy tickets for tonight at the Tobacco Factory Theatre (we were really lucky it was another full house – they’re only in Bristol for three days… tomorrow is the last night).
This is from their website: "The Paper Cinema perform a unique form of live animation and music. Founded in 2004 by Nicholas Rawling, with Imogen Charleston and Christopher Reed, they tour bespoke pieces around Britain and internationally. The company devised this original form of puppetry, which uses the language of animation, music, film and theatre to lead the viewer through a variety of stories. Intricate pen and ink illustrations are
manipulated in real-time in front of a live video camera and projected onto the big screen alongside the performed music, which is integral to the work".
Art, theatre, music, choreography… tonight’s enthusiastic audience were completely entranced, mesmerised and captivated and no doubt, like us, can’t wait to tell their friends about this amazing company.
If you’re in Bristol tomorrow (Saturday), I would urge you to try and get tickets (but I suspect it’s already a sell-out); if you live anywhere near the following places: Eastleigh, Halifax, Caernarfon, Salisbury, Coventry, Brighton, Colchester, Lancaster or Manchester (from now until the end of November), I suggest you do your utmost to catch a performance.
A simply magical, live performance of sheer delight.   
PS: Thank you SO much Si!

golfing whimp or just old and decrepit?

I played golf yesterday with my great mates Ken and Steve in Oxford (Pete cried off due to grandchild-sitting duties!).
We had a lovely time together - although we weren’t very impressed by the constant rain showers when the forecast had been for sunshine (of course, the sun came out as we were finishing our round!).
The only depressing thing about the day (apart from the weather) was that I came away thinking that I might be about to label myself as a “former golfer”.
I’ve been suffering from hip problems off and on for some two years now (I’ve just typed in the word “hip” on a search through my blog and came across this note in January2011).
I hadn’t played golf since our trip to Spain in April (apart from hitting a few balls on Iona in June). I’d very reluctantly had to cry off from playing at Burnham+Berrow with good friend Jake at the end of September (because I was finding it very difficult just to walk, let alone get round a golf course).  Physiotherapy subsequently improved things considerably and I found I could walk reasonably well (ie. rather than limp!), so I decided to give golf “another go” yesterday – and accepting that I might well be suffering a little by the end of the round. In the event, the walking was pretty good (not back to normal, but acceptable). What came as a shock was that I had shooting pains down my right leg virtually every time I hit a shot with my driver… and woods and long irons (note for non-golfers: these are the longer clubs, in terms of actual length, in my golf bag). So, I very soon stopped trying to use my driver altogether and either avoided using my woods and long irons wherever possible or just hit “half shots”.
The phrase “golf handicap” has developed a whole new meaning!
If this is what the future holds for me as a golfer, then I just don’t want to know – which, given the pleasure that the game and my golfing friends have granted me over the past 30 years(?), is pretty depressing.
I had been half thinking of doing a half marathon run as one of my “retirement projects”; this now seems like a laughable pipedream – I’ve tried running and can do little more than a painful 10metre “shuffle” (which must look hilarious to any onlookers)… at present, there’s no way that I could even keep up with our 3-year-old granddaughter!!
I’m very loathe to do so, but I may have to seek further medical advice.
Background (apologies, but while writing the above, I thought it would useful to jot down some background notes as a future reminder to me): My mother and her mother both had double replacements and so, when I started have “hip issues”, I feared that it might be an indicator of me following family history. I went to see the doctor in September and was sent for an x-ray. Thankfully, the results revealed a “normal” hip – but it was suggested that I was added to the two-month physiotherapy waiting list. In transpired that the way they “do” this in Bristol Community Health is through detailed telephone conversations between the patient and a senior physiotherapist (who has access to the x-ray results).
My physiotherapist reckons I’m suffering from ‘tensor fasciae latae’ overload (note: nothing to do with coffee!!) – possibly due to some weakening of my gluteal muscles. He’s unsure why this occurred in the first place, but reckons it’s a pattern he sees quite regularly… although he added that, despite the clear x-ray, there is a “small possibility” that it’s an early sign of osteoarthritis.
I’ve only been doing my twice-daily exercises for about 10 days thus far (apparently, it might take 5-6 weeks for the muscles to show a marked increase in strength), but have already seen some improvement (I’ve been told I can continue my daily walking, but to try to restrict this to say 2-3 miles for the time being).
I’m probably guilty of trying to run before I can walk!