Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Dusted down, polished up, still crap

The work on revamping my rather old poem, City of the Damned, is proceeding very slowly indeed. There are several reasons for this. First of all it is, as I said, very long. It also has some severe metrical problems and some issues of logic. There is also the problem that it's a product of a specific time and place, London in about 1981 and it hasn't travelled well. Beyond that it actually is an example of something that is really prose masquerading as poetry. Yes, even I sometimes fall into that trap. I am working on fixing it but it's a slow and difficult job. Therefore I'll switch track temporarily and present a number of revamped short poems. I've selected them purely because they are short and the degree of rewriting required, though variable, is small. This of course does not mean that they are especially good, in fact I'd be pushed to claim any pride in them. Still, they are mine and while pride would be misplaced I can't deny ownership.

Here then are the first three. They date, I believe to the mid-seventies which would put them either just before or just after I left school and went to University. The thought behind them was the way that we see every day people who we will never speak to, never get know, never interact with in any way whatsoever and the single passing glance of an attractive face is the sum total of their existence. A melancholy thought perhaps but at least it's a small variation on the teen angst that most of the poems from the period represent.

I don't know you,
But you're the first today,
A face in the crowd
As I'm on my way,
A sideways glance
As you're moving on;
I twist my neck
But you are gone.

Damn! Just missed the bus again.
Turned the corner, saw it go.
I always seem to miss it when
My feet are just a touch too slow
But through the window, scarcely seen
As its speed begins to grow
Another face, calm, serene
That I will never get to know.

Clip. Clip. Clip. Clip.
Measured and unfractured tread.
She walks towards me and walks past.
There are words I might have said.
Had the moment not slipped by so fast.

I always used to write myself a birthday poem, and a right set of miserable verses they are too. I'm not sure which particular birthday this one was for but it's fairly typical of them. I really didn't like birthdays much, did I?

No One Sent The Card

No one sent the card
That wasn't really there.
No one wrote the letter
That did not come.
No one came to visit
My castle in the air.
No one spoke a greeting.
There was no one.

No one came to see me
Or noticed me at all.
No one missed my face
If I failed to come.
No one dialled my number.
No one made the call.
No one rang my doorbell
There was no one.

And a second birthday, this one precisely datable because my age is mentioned in it. I was twenty four. Therefore it was 1981. And yes, it is as bad as the others.

In the closing and opening
Of the shutter
A year has passed.
The camera isolates
The victim in
An empty pose.
Each captured moment
In the series is
Just like the last.
Portraits of the hero
Are juxtaposed.

And that's about it for now although before I go I would like to draw your attention to a series of photographs on another blog. Blue Wave is my friend John's blog and he's recently returned from holiday. He's been posting a series of, mainly architectural, photographs, one at a time, on his blog and they are well worth a look with some excellent composition and use of natural light. Go see for yourself.

Friday, 24 October 2008

If you go down to the woods

Until today I had no idea that the children's song "Teddy Bears Picnic" had more than one verse. Now that I do, courtesy of a children's TV program, I'm really rather disturbed by the thought. The first verse is innocuous enough.

If you go down to the woods today
You're sure of a big surprise.
If you go down to the woods today
You'd better go in disguise.

I'm not sure of the need for a disguise but it's probably just because teddy bears are shy and retiring creatures who might run away and hide if they recognise you. Or is it? The second verse continues.

If you go down to the woods today
You'd better not go alone.
It's lovely out in the woods today
But safer to stay at home.

That's vaguely alarming, now. Why is it safer to stay at home? Do those teddy bears get a little too boisterous when they've been at the lemonade. Are there gangs of teddy bears in hiding waiting to waylay any non-ursine intruder?
The third and final verse reveals the gory, Friday-The-Thirteenth, truth.

Every teddy bear that's been good
Is sure of a treat today.
There's lots of wonderful things to eat
And wonderful games to play.

It couldn't be any clearer. These teddy bears have an appetite and the reason it's safer to stay at home is because you are on the menu. Nasty little buggers teddy bears. Never did trust them.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Parlez vous...huh?

In the course of my travels I have, as you would expect, accumulated quite a collection of guide books. They usually include some kind of mini phrase-book to help the traveller out as he tries to navigate his way about foreign lands. Buried in these phrase books it's not uncommon to find phrases which at first glance seem rather odd. Actually at second and subsequent glances too in many cases.

For example my guide to South America tells me how to say, "Help, there's something wrong with the brakes" though it's hard to conceive of circumstances where I would have both someone to say this to and the time to look it up in the book. Of course the same book tells me the Spanish for "Please call an ambulance" which might be handy a short time later.

My guide to Lao also includes this latter phrase but additionally, adopting a somewhat gloomier outlook, tells me how to ask, "Where is the nearest cemetery?"

Sometimes these things seem to give an insight into the things that occupy the collective national psyche, as in an Arabic guide in a book about Egypt which gives me translations for both "I need to check that with my chairman" and "We look forward to a mutually beneficial relationship" – phrases which hardly seem important for the casual traveller.

Food can also be a bit of a mystery as the guide book translations aren't necessarily all that useful. Knowing the Malay for "rice with odds and ends" doesn't mean that those odds and ends will be something palatable. For those who prefer their food rather fresher the phrase "do you have an ox", which I have in Malagasy, might do the trick and for after dinner entertainment there is always the Nepali for "Will you please dance for me", a phrase I was unwilling to try out when I was there for fear of it being a local euphemism inserted by a malicious guide book employee. It might of course be part of the mating rituals as indeed might the Chinese for "I think you look very pretty" though the Chinese for "I have lost my cat" could, perhaps, belong in the food and drink rather than the making friends section.

All of which is simply preamble to the point, which is that I have today bought a guide book for PDRK (North Korea) which gives me the two best phrases I have ever come across which I am absolutely certain will be winners with my hosts when I eventually get there in April. So, I'm off now to learn "Kim Il Sung really is the greatest communist fighter and true revolutionary" and "Yankees are wolves in human shape".

For those interested, the guide book, the only one I could find for the country, is one of the excellent Bradt series.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Where do we go from here...

Well, I don't know where we go from here but I do know where I go. I've just booked my first proper holiday for some time. I am a little concerned that the relevant stamps in my passport may cause me some problems if I try to visit my friends in America for future wordcraft conventions but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
It's a chance I'll have to take, after all, how many of my friends are likely to be able to say they have visited North Korea? Well, that's where I'm going. There are some quite drastic restrictions on travelling around within the country - for example you can't leave the hotels except as a group with the North Korean guides present so my habit of early morning wandering around the streets is a no-no, and you can't take mobile phones into the country so I'll have to just hope that no emergencies arise at home.

I'll post more about the itinerary later but for now I'll just start counting down the days to next Easter which is when the trip takes place and try very hard not to think how much it's going to cost me.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

The middle ground

I've talked about this before, elsewhere, if not here. Since I was a kid something strange has happened to sizes. For example, it used to be that bread came in thin sliced, medium sliced and thick sliced; tins of processed food in small, medium and large; ice creams in small cones or large cones. Now the bread is medium or thick and the tins and cones medium or large. Small seems to have vanished off the radar.
I have two alternate theories to explain this. One is the theory, based on far more evidence than this, that the people of the world are gradually turning into morons who do not realise that to have a medium you have to have something larger AND something smaller. They genuinely see "medium" as being the opposite of "large". In my gloomier moods this is the theory that I embrace. In my happier moods I have an alternate theory which is that it's a product of misplaced psychobabble advertising spin. People are more likely, so the theory goes, to buy something that is labelled "medium" than something labelled "small" even though it costs more and is exactly the same size. I say misplaced because if this is the thinking involved then there's a startling gap of logic. Offered a choice of small and large, the average greedy customer will, perhaps, for those psychological reasons, choose "large". But hang on, if "medium" is preferable to "small" doesn't that mean that if the choice is shifted to medium/large a bigger proportion of customers will choose the medium than would have ever chosen the small thus reducing rather than increasing those turning to the more profitable large?

All this is old ground. What's new though is the choice I was confronted with when I went to buy a kebab at my local fish,chips and kebabs shop tonight. Looking down the list headed "Kebabs" I saw that I could buy

Donner Kebab
Chicken Kebab
Mixed Meat Kebab
Kebab Meat and Chips in a tray
Chicken Kebab Meat and chips in a tray
Mixed Meat and chips in a tray

All of these came in two sizes - medium or large, usually with a price difference of about 70 pence. It was the next three items on the list that puzzled me.

Small Kebab Meat and Chips
Small Chicken Kebab Meat and Chips
Small Mixed Meat and Chips

And these confused me because all of these also come in two sizes - medium and large. Was, I pondered, a large small Kebab Meat and Chips bigger or smaller than a medium, regular Kebab Meat and Chips?
The prices indicated that they were in fact the same and that a medium small was smaller than a medium regular.

I'm no wiser now. Because the whole thing was making my head hurt, I bought a steak and kidney pie.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Sleeping on Helvellyn

I used to belong to a kind of social club called Spice, although it's quite a few years ago since I was a member. We did all sorts of things though the bits I liked best were the bowling and the rambling. I went on all of those. There was one ramble, more of a day-hike really, up Helvellyn - a peak in the lake district - which I especially remember, though not for any very good reasons. The weather was miserable as we ascended and worse when we reached the top. As we were spending the night up there without tents and with only bivvy bags for protection this was not good news. It was, I can fairly say, one of the worst nights I have spent in my life.

By contrast I spent another weekend on a writing course a the Welsh cottage of one of the Spice founders and that was considerably more comfortable, apart, perhaps, from the snoring from the others sharing my dormitory accommodation. The connection between the two things is one of the writing exercise that we did while we were there which I have just discovered afresh while clearing out some old junk files on my computer. The exercise was to write a short piece in ten minutes about a personal experience written in the present tense. Having re-read it, it seems to well sum up the experience.

So here it is, dusted down and presented for your amusement.

he one about an experience, written in the present tense

I haven’t got the faintest idea what time it is and I don’t care. I’m too busy spending all my energy on caring about how bloody miserable this whole experience is to spare any on worrying about the time. God knows what possessed me to think this was a good idea.

Ten minutes ago I’d managed to fall asleep. Somehow I’d found a point of balance on the narrow bench of stone and started to doze, but I’m awake again now and in spite of being in my clothes inside a four season bag inside a bivvy bag I’m still about as cold and wet and miserable as I ever remember being.

What woke me was a rock falling from the top of the wall and hitting me on the head. It was probably smaller than my clenched fist but it felt like a boulder. It could have fractured my skull, or if I’d been laying face up instead of on my side with my arms curled like a boxer protecting my face, it could have smashed my glasses into fragments, ground the glass into my eyes.

We had put a huge plastic sheet over the cross of the wall, pinning it in place with wedged stones, but it had been a futile gesture. The wind had torn it away leaving us freezing and exposed. It was probably in the next county by now.

I hate this.

It occurs to me that lying on the windward side of the wall may not have been the brightest idea I’ve ever had and awkwardly, blind and clumsy in the darkness and rain, I swing my feet to the ground and try to bunny hop round to the lee without letting go of the bag.

Somehow, and I don’t know how because it feels like it’s taken for ever, I get round. There are six other people huddled in their cocoons against each other and the wall.

I force my way into the middle and no-one says anything though some of them must be awake. They probably don’t want to spare the energy either.

I check that I’m not too close to the wall. I learned my lesson from the last rock.

I haven’t got the faintest idea what time it is and I don’t care.

I just want it to be dawn.

I just want to go home.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Signs of getting old

Signs of getting old

You walk past a queue for a nightclub, on your way home.
Your thought processes are...

1. Hey, look at all those beautiful girls.
2. They do look a bit young though.
3. And they must be freezing dressed like that at this time of year.

At least they were my thought processes about an hour ago.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008


This isn't more of the promised old poetry revised and revamped. It's new, well newish, stuff. There are three poems here that were all written at a poetry workshop about a year ago and subsequently redrafted and tightened up a bit. The first is a bit of doggerel that occurred to me after the fire that destroyed Tracy Emin's Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, an artwork consisting of a tent on which she had embroidered all the names that gave it it's title.

The Fire

Tracy Emin made a tent,
Embroidered it with names,
Said, "These were all the lovers
Who shared my night time games."
The warehouse where the tent was kept
Burned to the ground one night.
I can't be sure a lover did it,
But I'm certain that one might.

The second was a variation on the never-ending discussion of "what is art" on one of the message boards, that only occasionally turns ugly. It was inspired by a rather more well-known and conventional piece of art - The Venus de Milo.

When does it cease to be art?

A statue.
A figure of a woman.
Flawless. Perfect. Sublime.
A wonder.
This is surely art.
Cut off the arms.
Pound them to gravel.
Bury it.
Forget it.
And what remains,
Flawed, imperfect, reduced
Remains yet
A piece of art.
Everyone says so.
It must be true.
Lose the head.
Lose the legs.
Cleave the torso.
In two. In four. In eight.
In a million.
Grind it to dust.
Scatter it to the wind.
This is not art.
Not the remains of art.
This is less than nothing.
But when was the transition.
When did it cease to be art?

The third and final poem was inspired by another piece of modern art, Anthony Gormley's Event Horizon. I was there with a friend and though both of us liked it we had completely different reactions to it. The poem tries to capture my own feelings about it and then punctures my pomposity with my friend's feelings. At least that's the effect I was aiming for.

Event Horizon

Distant figures,
Sinister and silent,
Watching me
The centre of their Universe.
On the rooftops
That surround me
They are my event horizon.

They are frozen in the moment,
Caught in the amber instant
Between the then and the now.
I shiver with insignificance.

My companion has another view.
"Playful, aren't they?" she says.

Palin, Biden and Flesch-Kincaid

A wordcraft regular points to this report which suggests that Sarah Palin "speaks at a higher grade level" than Joe Biden. The source is The Global Language Monitor, whose ludicrous claims that that English language contains (at the time of writing) exactly 997,311 words and will soon be reaching one million, have been ridiculed and debunked by just about every rational person with access to a blog. What then are we to make of their claims in this new, political, forum?

Well, for a start they claim that their calculation is performed by "a modified Flesch-Kincaid formulation". Hmm. That would be the Flesch-Kincaid READABILTY calculation then would it? Let's just say that again, a bit louder, READABILITY. There's a bit of a clue in the name. It's a relatively crude formula for calculating how easy a written text is to read. That's WRITTEN and READ. It's based on the average number of words per sentence and the average number of syllables per word.
Spoken text is a completely different animal. The validity of applying this particular method to spoken text is, to be as charitable as possible, dubious. But they do say "modified", don't they? They don't say how it's been modified (just as they don't say how they go about counting the words in the language) but let's suppose, just for argument's sake, that it's been modified by a magic wand that makes it applicable to speech. There is an even more fatal flaw in using the results to comment on the intelligence or credibility of the candidates. I'll say this nice and loud too, A HIGHER SCORE ISN'T NECESSARILY A BETTER RESULT.
When it comes to what politicians say I like clear, easy to follow concise English. I much prefer it to cunning constructions and clever words. It's much harder to hide a lie in a simple sentence than in a complicated one. What a lower score actually means is that the candidate in question has been more effective at getting his or her message across to more people. It's more accessible. Of course a score of 0 or less would make it comparable with Dr Seuss and nobody wants a(nother) President or Vice-President that talks like a children's book but a moderate score shows only that the speech is aimed correctly at the everyman that a shrewd politician wishes to reach. And what exactly is wrong with that?

(And, for the record, this blog entry has a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 9.6.)

That's logical

A long, long time ago, when I was a mere speccy geek of an eleven year old, we had a teacher whose real name is now long forgotten but who went, for reasons I never did fathom, by the nickname of Mud. He was, I recall, a geography teacher. Possibly with a bit of RE* on the side. One day he had a brainwave. He took all of us speccy geeks and sat us at the front of the class, and all of those who didn't have to wear glasses and sat them at the back of the class. When asked why he had done this he explained his rationale thus: the ones with glasses have defective vision and need to sit closer than the ones without glasses who don't have defective vision. A single moment's thought picks up the essential flaw of the argument. And if you can't see it try substituting the word "corrected" for "defective".
The result was a lot of kids whose lives had so far been gloriously optician-free sitting at the back of the class and squinting, and a different lot of bespectacled kids whose mothers had taken them to have their eyes tested sitting at the front saying, "but sir, I can see from the back."
This is the kind of logic we don't see enough of, completely and utterly specious but making perfect sense to the person suggesting it.
But what does any of this have to do with the current cold weather? Quite a lot actually. We are barely tiptoeing into the beginnings of Autumn but the weather is also throwing some rather cold mornings at us. And what do we do on cold mornings? Correct! We wrap up warm. I, for example, wear a fleece under my coat and, should it be raining as well as cold, a waterproof over my coat. This protects me adequately on my twenty minute walk to the Metro station. There I get onto the Metro. Now, for those who have never travelled by Metro, it is a fine and wonderful service and for ninety per cent of the day it is moderately comfortable and you can get a seat. For the other ten per cent - during the rush hour - it isn't and you can't. More than that it is frequently overcrowded to a quite remarkable degree.
Last week they were showing "Return From The River Kwai" on TV and there is a scene where the fiendish Japanese guards are cramming the prisoners of war onto a cattle train. They are overseen by George Takei, who in between being a helmsman on Star Trek and Hiro Nakamura's Dad on Heroes, must have moonlighted as a camp commondant in a Japanese POW camp. Anyway they were wedged in and the doors forced shut and barred and it still looked more comfortable than the Metro on a bad day.
So, I get onto the Metro and, because it's such a cold day everybody on there is wearing overcoats or anoraks or multiply layers of coats and jumpers. Some of them probably have thermal underwear. And that's where the leap of logic comes in. They have the Metro heaters turned on full because it's cold. No matter that people are collapsing from heat stroke - or would be if there was room to fall down - it's autumn, it's cold outside, put the heaters on. At the moment it's merely unbearable but as the days get colder and people wrap up even warmer it will become positively satanic, I know I've been there before. I wonder if it ever occurs to anyone to turn the heaters off during the rush hour. Probably not. That would be like putting the kids with corrected vision at the back of the class.

(*In case you don't know RE=Religious Education, a topic which may or may not still be in the school curriculum in these more multicultural times.)

Monday, 6 October 2008

Restore to Factory Settings

Some years ago I was on a hiking holiday in Italy. Now, while I am not the world's most naturally gifted linguist, I always learn a few phrases of the local language. I can say hello, goodbye, yes, no, please, thank you and – crucially – two beers please, in about twenty different languages. The trouble is that it doesn't, for most languages, extend much beyond this most basic of basic vocabulary. In fact the only language in which I could claim any kind of proficiency, apart from English, is German. And therein lies the heart of the matter. In Italy, one morning, preparing for a day's hike, I went into a bakery to buy some bread. My Italian was restricted to the aforementioned phrases. The baker's English was an unknown quantity so when I found my Italian inadequate I switched to my default language.

And my default language was German. Now, why that should be I don't know. While I can get by in German I can't claim any high degree of fluency, certainly nowhere near native competence. So why did I switch to German rather than English?

I don't know, but it seems to happen time and time again. It's happened to me in countries as far apart as Peru and China. When my knowledge of the local lingo fails me I try German – NOT English.

I was discussing this with my friend John on Sunday over a few beers and it seems that the same thing happens to him. When in a foreign country and unable to communicate he automatically reaches for German rather than English.

My theory is that our brains are recognising two things, English and Foreign. Having realised that what they are hearing isn't English they aim for the only alternative available and go for German. (Actually John also speaks French, but that's by the by.)

It's really quite an odd phenomenon and I wonder if it afflicts anyone else. It's as if when I go abroad the settings in my brain get changed. The default setting gets switched to "foreign". When I return home the factory settings are automatically restored. Just as well really, I'd hate to find myself trying to communicate with my Dad in German as, rather bizarrely, his sole phrase in the language is "Frohe Weinachten", and that's a bit limiting in conversation.

Has anyone else ever noticed anything similar?