Quo vado?

Is there anywhere in the world I do not want to visit?

Sand

Well now, that’s a tough question. There are certainly place I would prefer to visit to other places: the Taj Mahal would appeal to me more than the White House; the Grand Canyon more than the Mariana Trench, what with the dark and the pressure and miles of water overhead and the mutant squid and all. Although mutant squid would be interesting.

I could go through a lengthy exercise working out the relative appeal of every square inch of the planet and, in theory at least, would end up with a least desirable option, possibly Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib or some such.

However, these are places at a specific moment in time. Who knows – in 10 or 20 years they might be more appealing than somewhere else. That’s the definition of “relative,” right there. The list would be only appropriate for today.

There cannot be a place anywhere that does not have some intimation of wonder. It is up to us to find it.

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.”

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There is no try

Life starts as a journey full of possibilities, and at each turn we make a choice which leads us down a different track.

Whenever I contemplate writing an autobiography I suspect the world is not yet ready for the torrent of self-obsessed drivel which would result. However, if there is a lesson I believe I have learned over the past half century, it’s this: we choose.

Don’t give me excuses. We choose whether to be kind or hurtful. We choose whether to be ruled by heart or head. We choose when to laugh and when to cry, when to let it fester and when to let it go. What happens in the world is just that. It happens. But we can choose how we react to it, how we deal with it and how we precipitate events for others to respond.

Life is not necessarily easy, in fact it’s never easy. Fooling ourselves into thinking it’s something that happens to us, instead of around us, just makes it harder. There may be constraints that make some things impossible. I’m pretty sure I still can’t fly like Superman; but Superman is fiction and wanting something doesn’t mean it’s possible, even with effort and cool gadgets and solving difficult problems with science and stuff. We can’t choose to break the laws of physics, for example, although with medical science we may nudge around them to give ourselves a helping hand. We don’t get to choose what limits us, but we do get to choose how we deal with it.

Now I feel a bit like Yoda with his “Do or do not. There is no try.” It sounds harsh. I don’t mean it that way. All I mean is that I try not to blame anyone for where I am, and if something bothers me enough then I try and work out what compromise I can make to improve it.

Dear reader, I still get incensed by life. I write my ranty blog posts, most of which never make it onto your screen. I write caustic letters in my head to CEOs of companies that have failed to provide a suitable level of service. I deliver sarcastic diatribes to the ears of dribbling service operatives who appear to think it’s OK to be appalling at what they do. (I also like to remember to thank those who do things well, and forget to do so far too often.) In my dreams I rule the world; peace and order prevail, because all the silly, fighty, shouty people have been locked in a room and told not to come out until they have shaken hands and made up. And they have to really, really mean it too.

Given that I don’t listen to my own sage advice, there is clearly no compunction on you to do so. I choose to act like an idiot, and sometimes I choose to be better. Hopefully some of those around me choose not to mind.

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Demographic

The emails and text messages that annoy me fall into a particular category. Some deluded marketing wonk thinks they are helping me, by (a) stating the obvious, or (b) telling me about something I am not interested in.

Don’t get me wrong – on a quiet day I love to be prompted to waste hours browsing around retail websites carefully selected for my target demographic, whatever that is. Well, I say “love”, but to be honest at best it can fill a rainy afternoon. And that’s the point. Even in autumnal England, even in the wake of a few days of uncharacteristic downpours, excessive by our globally acknowledged broad and generous standards, even then, that quiet rainy afternoon is pretty elusive.

I know they have a job to do. In some cases they probably genuinely think it is helpful. But they are in a queue, the one that comprises all my other hobbies, chores, hopes, fears and ambitions for my day. The laundry, washing up, project plan, shopping, music practice, phone call to whichever company has messed up another Direct Debit, dentist appointment, voluntary work commitment, bank transfer to hungry offspring at university, yoga, phone call / email to sick friend I haven’t contacted for months (she has been on the list an awful long while!) – you get the picture, and I expect it is familiar. If you want to transfer money to my hungry offspring, by the way, feel free. It will be good for your soul.

So when my mailbox fills up with messages about handbags or, in a moment of technical failure, penis enlargements, I do get tetchy. I know that buried in the dross will be something important about the school, or a friend, or a bill. So I need to wade through and spend my evening triaging the flood. (With that level of stress is it any wonder if I mix a metaphor or two?)

However, it is one I plan for, just as shops plan for a certain level of shoplifting, or management plans for a certain number of sick days, or York plans for floods. That may be the most depressing thing of all; that I, and no doubt you, just grin and bear it. While I have decided to view it as a way of controlling my destiny rather than being swamped by powerlessness, in the back of mind a little voice says, with Gallic deprecation, and enunciated around a Gauloise Bleue, “Eh bien. Self-delusion is a wonderful thing. “

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In praise of everyday things

Why don’t we tell people when they do a good job?

Bus passengers, 1952

Dear Fellow Bus Passenger

I wanted to let you know I think you are great. I hope this doesn’t sound creepy. I see you every morning on the bus but we don’t speak.

I am invisible; I am there every day and I talk to my friend who sits next to me. We are getting old and you are so young your eyes don’t see us. I see you though and I am amazed. Initially you don’t seem to have many advantages in life. You aren’t beautiful by popular standards. You are large and overweight and don’t seem to have much interest in fashion. It’s fine by me because I’m not interested in those things either, but I suspect many young people are. Certainly judging by the way they talk and shop anyway. You do dress in young clothes, low hanging jeans which reveal more of your person than perhaps I would recommend – but what would an invisible old lady like me know? I do know other passengers exchange those kind of looks which often are accompanied by snide remarks or smirks as though they were models for Vogue.

You don’t seem aware of it. Maybe you hide it well, or maybe you are too tired to notice. Perhaps you are too nice to think others would think like that about you. You are on a very early bus and you are on the same bus home as well. It’s quite a bit sooner than my stop so you start work earlier and finish later to travel with me. You work hard.

Lots of people are like that though. It’s not amazing. What is amazing is that you have this kid. He’s a beauty. You bring him on the bus every day for the workplace crèche. You get up early and then you get him up and dressed and fed and to the bus on time, and he isn’t crying and you don’t seem stressed. All the time on the bus you talk to him about what you can see, or tell him stories. You tell him he’s good. He is. In the evening sometimes he’s a little tired and whiny, and I’m pretty sure you feel that way too because I do, and most of the other passengers look like they do too. The only difference is that little kids haven’t learned to keep it to themselves. They are still outraged at the unfairness of the world.

So he may snivel a bit, but you cheer him up and keep calm and he calms down too. You play a little with him but you keep him quiet and calm and happy.

You do this every single day.

I have watched your child grow up and become old enough for school and suddenly you are alone on the bus again. Everything else is the same from your clothes to the other passengers. But somehow the bus seems emptier and you seem smaller without him.

You have been doing a great job and I bet people don’t tell you often enough. So I wanted to tell you now.

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The Gilded Page

“What is the use of a book without pictures?” asked Alice. And well she might.

Illustrating books used to be an act of intense personal devotion. The early Christian monks dedicated their lives and eyesight to the production of some of the most stunning artistic pages ever created. They took their inspiration from the natural world around them which they saw as the creation and gift of God, and wove what they observed into the pages of the Bible, using the most precious of materials to create their masterpieces.

It would be humbling to create anything so inspirational today, and while I am sure there are plenty of artists out there who may do so, I keep coming back to the Illuminated Gospels as exemplars of how book illustration can lift the mere written word to an overwhelming sensory experience.

With this in mind, I ponder how illustration is used today to enhance writing. Many textbooks will, of course, use illustration to underline the content of the book, from the Encyclopaedia Britannica to the Kama Sutra. Children’s books naturally make extensive use of pictures to help tell the story to pre-literate infants. Many of us enjoy comics (or “graphic novels” if you are sensitive about it). Persepolis is a great example of how illustration can help to tell important stories.

What is left? Fiction does seem to be the poorer cousin for a lack of regular illustration. I treated myself a couple of years ago to an edition of The Lord of the Rings which included illustrations by Alan Lee. His artwork really adds to the book – although thank you also to Peter Jackson for a faithful rendition of the story onto screen which has provided me with further imagery that is more portable than the hefty paper version. Between my own mental efforts, Peter Jackson and the miracle of e-books I can carry the whole of Middle Earth in glorious technicolour like a veritable goddess holding a world in the palm of her hand.

Back to fiction though.

Why don’t we illustrate it more often? It is true that whole page illustrations can break the flow of a story. However, it seems to be a modern affectation. Picking up old books in those mothball-scented, dusty establishments that sell them cheaply (or occasionally, if in a tourist centre, expensively), one is immediately aware that pictures used to be much more commonplace. I am inclined to think it is related to the growth of television. Just as descriptive passages used to be long and detailed (look at Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens) in order to acquaint the reader with unfamiliar environments, now everyone has seen everything on television and we need less scene-setting to be able to imagine the surroundings of the story. We even know what the surface of Mars looks like, for we also have the mighty Internet.

Even though I like to conjure pictures in my head without interference from a selected artist, still I like those old books. I would like to bring back as standard a small amount of illustration in fiction – perhaps the initial word of a chapter, as per the monastic illuminations where we began this discussion, or small sketches no more than a quarter of the page, to prompt my imagination when I am tired or losing interest.

It seems to me that the more senses I use to absorb a story, the more I am engaged with it and the more I take from it. So let’s hear it for illustrated stories!

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William Morris' 25 hour day

If a day had 25 hours, what would you do with the extra time?

My first reaction to this scenario was that a 25 hour day would mean I had made it to another habitable planet, so what better way to use the time than explore? Then I realised that I would need not only a 25 hour day but also a 25 hour biological clock. Cool! I’d be an alien!

I could use my time to find out more about those chronologically challenged creatures of Earth with their woefully short day. After all, 25 hours is barely enough for a busy sentient being about the galaxy, so how do they cope with such a restricted time frame? No wonder they all seem so stressed; it isn’t natural.

But no, there are still too many ambiguities. Now I’m on another planet an hour might not be the same as the Earth’s 60 minute measure; so a 25 hour day here might be only minutes, or stretch to years, in Terran terminology. It’s all too difficult to work out and I am starting to get a headache.

Let’s start again. That’s better.

An extra hour in the day would give me plenty of time to daydream about being an alien. It would give me time to write better blog posts (hopefully!), or to learn something new, or take up yoga. I could waste it all on working, but I already sacrifice enough to that so I would definitely want time for me.

Now here’s a real challenge. I can find things to do to spend an hour, but can I find things to do to save an hour? To make my day 25 hours in effect?

Perhaps I could become an Arts & Crafts time-spender, doing only what is useful or what is beautiful. I feel there is something here I could work with, asking myself the question whenever I go to do something. In this way perhaps I can spend my time so that I feel I have 25 hours in a day and afterwards, that they have been 25 hours worth having.

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To Infinity and beyond

When I was five I was just alive…

Apollo 11 East Crater Panorama

When I was five I didn’t really think beyond the moment, except maybe to wonder what was for dinner or to fidget in class because we were doing something boring and I wanted to go outside and play. I don’t think I ever thought about what I would be when I grew up, although it is possible I wanted to be Thomas the Tank Engine. That didn’t work out.

When I was seven I wanted to be an astronaut. It was 1969 and the year of the moon landing. Excitement had been growing at school and at home; during the mission, as the rocket both approached and departed the moon, each night before bed I went to the door and waved goodnight to the astronauts. Then one glorious day at school our teacher brought out the television and we sat and watched a fuzzy picture of clumsy spacesuits bouncing about in slow motion – and they were really there, on the moon! It was incredible. Just as I had waved to them at bedtime, they could stand and wave back at the Earth. Wave back at me.

The following year the Apollo 13 mission played out in real time before our eyes. It wasn’t all Tom Hanks and confidence in a happy ending. We didn’t know the ending until it happened. My mother and grandma were distraught. At bedtime I didn’t just wave, I prayed, possibly for the first time in a meaningful way. That splashdown in the ocean was the answer, although whether to prayer or human ingenuity or both is up to you to decide.

After that I still wanted to go into space. A couple of years later I was still fascinated and I did my research, I watched Star Trek on television and read Hugh Walters. Before I finished primary school I had moved onto Philip K Dick and discovered that I needed to learn maths and physics to get into NASA. This was not a major obstacle; I liked maths and science, although I also liked history and French, and was pretty good at them.

Somehow in my teens it started to go wrong. I got too fat and unfit to think about astronauting. It turned out that while I was good at maths and physics I was better at languages and history. It turned out I actually loved them. Then it turned out I was better at thinking about why we should go into space than I was at actually going into space, so I studied philosophy and psychology at university. And then it turned out I was better at computers than those things too.

So in the end I worked in jobs that didn’t exist when I was five, or even ten, or actually barely fifteen. It turns out I am the citizen of a future only accessible through science fiction to the five-year-old-child-me. And it turns out I still think the most exciting thing to happen recently is not the London Olympics but the Curiosity mission to Mars.

The strangest thing is, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

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