Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Bonfires and unidentified beeps

Positivity is the key. It's all too easy to descend into grumbling about all the things that annoy you: The bonfires that spring up everywhere in autumn and foul your clothes with smoke should you walk within a few miles downwind of them; The cars who seem to randomly beep their horn at you a couple of times a week as you walk down the road and they zoom by. Who was that? I have no idea. Were they waving? Good grief. If they know me, why not stop? Crazy people. Were they beeping at that tree?

The bonfires are strange things. They just pop everywhere once you move into September. People seem to have this strange fascinating with burning things. It's bizarre. Perhaps it's an inherited behaviour from ancient history, or a deep-seated need to release carbon into the atmosphere and help destroy the world, or just a genetic tendency toward arson? Whatever the cause, it's very worrying. Humans like to burn, just as they did to conquered cities back in history. It's hard to find a positive with that tendency, especially when you consider that a lot of the things they burn are garden waste and therefore compostable to begin with. However, positives must prevail, so lets get away from fire. Fire burns.

For various reasons it has been a rough few days, and a very quiet few days. It's like living in a bubble, but a bubble that could rip apart at any moment with a job offer or summons to an interview. Perhaps not the latter, upon reflection, as there haven't been many job applications lately. Life is in suspension, impervious to your actions. What you have to do is to take control in some way, to remind yourself of that vital illusion that we control our own destinies instead of being flotsam on the ocean of time. Almost all motivational teaching is based on the idea that we can effect our own destiny, that we can make a difference, or that if we accumulate enough energon cubes and donate them to the school we can escalate to a whole new level of existence. As if anyone could believe in energon cubes, anyway! (It comes in biscuit form.)

So, to make a difference, today was a Kidwelly Castle day. It was lovely, airy, and breezy and quiet enough to be enjoyable without distraction. The school groups wrecked that eventually, of course, but it worked for long enough. The climable tower was climbed, the walkways were traversed, postcards were obtained, and there was not a single beep from a car horn. They can't reach me in a castle. Successfully hidden! Mwahahahahahhaha.


Sunday, 14 September 2014

Story: Oneiromancy, XI

(Part O , X , XII)

Stanley read Helen's notes, even as she read his, and then they both reflected for a few moments, against the backdrop of an inevitable dead panic. Finally he roused himself to ask the following: "What do you think all these rumours add up to?"

"What rumours?"

"All these tall tales you've written about, the strange things they talked about at college. What do you think it all means?" Stanley found a place he'd been looking for on the paper. "Project Dreamline?"

Helen hesitated, and then plunged into the explanation she had put together back in the bold old days, back when truth was stuck together with tape, assembled from the few facts available and gossipped mercilessly. "None of us ever knew, we were just psychology students, but these tales that went around never went away. Tales of strange dream studies and experiments, mostly in Mexico. But with too many strange details to be easily ignored." Some moments passed as she thought back. "It hardly seems connected."

"It's all we have. In the other world, the island, you seemed very sure of yourself. What did you mean with that talk about the woman killing all the others who could do what we do? What are you not remembering now?" Stanley was persistent, amongst many other things.

"I didn't know anything, it all just clicked together. That - woman, if she was ever human at all - has blocked that place up and eliminated all the people who do what we have been doing. She's a predator." Moments passed. "Maybe I am remembering something I didn't think I knew."

"It could all happen again tonight. And the night after. Every night until she traps us." Stanley grimaced. "And then what will happen to what's left of us out here?"

"Yes, what's left... I think I remember why people started talking about this to begin with, back at college." Helen stood up. "Come with me, this cafe's getting very full."

Stanley went with her. They walked down the street silently, thinking, and then back up it. Stanley gestured at his house. "I live there. It's pretty messy."

"I'm three or four streets over in that direction." Helen waved in turn. "What are we going to do?"

"Keep walking? Become wandering cheese vendors across the wilds of Europe? Write a book about it all? Learn about REM sleep so we can talk about all the things they talk about in the movies and in television shows?"

"All of those, bar the cheese vending. Can't stand the stuff!"

Stanley was mock aghast. "I'm walking with a cheese hater! Oh good grief, is that some kind of karmic punishment? Oh, if only humour were appropriate..." He trailed off. "Want to hear an idea?"

"What is it?"

"I've had problems with dreams forever, and even tried medication, but it turns out that they're necessary to keep us alive and sane. There was one thing that I didn't try though: hypnosis. It might help us while we're in there, and while we try to find out more about this thing that's happening, any help could be vital."

"Any help could save our lives."

There shall be more...

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Capacious Pantaloons

Guybrush Threepwood, mighty pirate, stored his whole inventory in his mighty pantaloons. They were capacious as well as stylish, and no-one ever questioned it. Indeed, once he stored a monkey and a mechanical banana picker in that manner and lived to tell the tale! Hang on, was the mechanical banana picker a 'Star Trek' reference? Only personally understood now decades later? 'Monkey Island' surely does have more facets than I thought.

It's nice to think about 'Monkey Island', a very restful thing, especially after an interview experience. I can't imagine ever being happy with such an experience, but at least this last was an improvement. The banana picker was left at home, and no-one noted the continuity contradiction in my talk, so it went off well. Even the question I blanked and couldn't answer in the interview didn't feel so bad, although it was probably vital in retrospect. It was about outreach, which is increasingly important to universities now, and vitally so. We need more people in Sciences especially, and exciting them in greater numbers and earlier is one of the most important things we can do. Mathematics is the key to practically everything that will assail us as a species in the near future.

Now, with the interview done, and holiday extracts completed, it feels like the whole holiday disruption is over and the world is spinning back up to speed. I suspect that other people don't get affected for this long, even with complicating interviews and being stranded in the wilds of the country. Normal is what is needed now, 'Sapphire And Steel' notwithstanding. Oh, 'Sapphire And Steel', the strangest series that just landed on my doormat. The first episode was so unusual that it has immediately jumped up to the top of my queue of things to watch urgently. It is fascinating, especially in tandem with 'A Connecticut Yankee In New York', which has finally broken to the top of the reading pile. Oh, that reading pile, that just won't shrink! (Actually there are two reading piles, one fiction and one non-fiction, and things are finally moving in both after a long time of stagnation. The four volume 'Journey to the West' is like to be there a long time yet, though!)

Yes, it's all settling down and now my worry is that it settling down while being unemployed is perhaps not the best of things. Any ambivalence about the nature of work and the job does very quickly get subverted by needing money to live and buy things like new books. Oh, how nice it would be to have a second living author to read! I need more books for these pantaloons! Oh, these are definitely the worries of someone with too little to do. It might be time to write another story...


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Holiday Ramblings VII: "The Great Escape" (Day 8)

And we're done! Never again, crazy people, never again! I now return to the regular schedule, once tomorrow's interview has been dealt with. Now to hit presentation practice again!

The music rolls, and in the misty rain of a dank early morning, you emerge from the miserable hostel and head for the train station in hopefully inconspicuous clothing. The obstacles remain obdurate: A leg from Marseille to Paris (dodging the Sureté and secret train police), crossing Paris uncaught (it's the croissant-cams you need to watch out for), and then the leg from Paris to London through the sensor-rich Channel Tunnel, which can only be defeated with the judicious use of bottles of water, lemons, a large number of throat lozenges, and a high quality photograph of anyone called Frank.

Freedom! Freedom from the continent of incomprehensibly bad breakfast habits! Freedom from an unfairly judged Marseille, and the insurmountable piles of rubbish and cigarette ends! Freedome from all the smelly smoke itself! Freedom! Apart from Chateau d'If and, partly, Frioul the Marseille portion of this trip did not go well. A jellyfish siege and sheer apathy can do that to a trip, as well as an overridingly bad first impression! At this point, a basin with a plug is the highest of heavens, and a tap that doesn't shoot directly into the hole is beyond imagining. It's possible that lack of sleep has sent me just a little loopy. Meep meep!

The Sun rises and the escape continues. The lady in the seat next to me has tried to move twice so I can only assume I look highly suspicious or reek of something terrible. Has the camouflage not worked? Not even the parrot on the shoulder?


Two reluctant travelling companions later, the first one vanishing permanently some hours later and the second within a minute of boarding the Eurostar, and following a near disaster, the coach trip to South Wales is finally here. Oh, that near disaster almost ruined it all, but the escape is done! Time to put the onion strings in a bin and relax into the this last tiny four road journey. Oh, that near disaster!

Imagine, if you will, the horror of a crippling electrical malfunction right at the outset of your journey and with two city-crossing connections still to make. Imagine the stress as your TGV defies the perceived excellent of the French train system by stumbling along at a halting snail's pace. Actually, please don't imagine the stress if you have an excusing doctor's note, imagine the Magic Roundabout instead. The minutes of your Paris overlap fall away until the Eurostar seems impossible, but you rush anyway from Gare de Lyon to Gare du Nord and are stunned that they are far less strict on checking in times than you thought they would be. Still, you rush through security and double passport control, and finally board, always a few moments away from disaster. And then your seat mate ditches you immediately. Can one never win?!

It all seems so distant now, now that a Marks and Spencers picnic banquet has been purchased and feasted upon, and the Orcs Nest visited to grab copies of 'King of Tokyo' and 'Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on a Cursed Island'. It's lovely to see rain again, and even the Cardiff roadworks and diversions seem welcoming. It's grey, murky, and thoroughly wet.



Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Television: 'The Beiderbecke Trilogy' by Alan Plater (1984-1988)

With an interview looming on Thursday, another arduous one, and a sisterly birthday picnic just gone today, it's probably best to write about something concrete instead of mindless blathering. So let's get down to some of the best British mini-series ever to be made: 'The Beiderbecke Trilogy', which is composed of 'The Beiderbecke Affair' (1984), 'The Beiderbecke Tapes' (1987) and 'The Beiderbecke Connection' (1988) and was written by the late great Alan Plater. Plater wrote one of the my favourite plays, 'A Matter Of Time', as well as the mini-series 'Oliver's Travels', the television movie 'Doggin' Around' and a multitude of other fascinating oddball television triumphs. He was also a jazz aficionado, which filters through all his work unashamedly. Oh, if only there were more Plater work in the world...

As a whole, the trilogy is a mild-mannered antidote to most of the more violent and passion-filled productions you could find out there, and is based firmly in and around the romantically joined characters of Jill Swinburne and Trevor Chaplin, a woodwork teacher and an English teacher respectively. Yes, finally a lead character called Trevor: it has been a long time coming! Jill is an environmental activist and conservationist, and Trevor is a jazz aficionado and oddball, and together they are them. Over the course of three short mini-series they wandered into exposing local corruption, Jill out-classing Trevor's ex-fiancee, accidental discoveries of tapes about nuclear waste dumping, cyber-criminals in the late 1980s, a baby while being probationary cohabs, and all that while trying to evade the nefarious machinations of their idiot head-teacher Mr Wheeler and amusedly tolerating the overwhelming cynicism of their colleague Mr Carter. It's not a crime series, though, but something quite unclassifiable. Unclassifiable things are the best, I wish there were more. It's a set of jazz-comedy-romantic-drama-mystery-thrillers with a small dose of bittersweet irony mixed in.

In many ways 'The Beiderbecke Trilogy' is one of my very earliest screen influences, before even reading 'The Magician's Nephew', Willard Price, 'The Hardy Boys' or 'The Secret Seven'. As such, with that wonderfully lyrical Plater dialogue, the dynamite dynamic between the unconventional Barbara Flynn and James Bolam as the leads, an all star cast, and all that jazz, it was a defining experience. Oh, and that jazz is wonderful, the scores being peppered with music from Bix Beiderbecke, the great jazz cornet player, "whose playing sounded like bullets shot from a bell". The jazz, mixed with the sheer wittiness of the dialogue, makes this one of the greatest keepers in my dvd collection, eclipsed by nothing but original 'Star Trek' and 'M*A*S*H'. It's one of those shows that has been watched so often that it's on hiatus in order to bring back some freshness to the watching. It's magnificent, silly, musical, poignant and light. There's a touch of the wisdom of the ages mixed in with the native buffoonery of all things British, and philosophy where you least expect it. Also, there are dominoes, funerals, a disastrous school trip to Holland, and several trips to the takeaway. In short, it's a little slice of the United Kingdom wrapped up in alternative economies and cool music. Action lovers will need to leave their addiction at the door.

If that sounds good, then you might also want to check out 'Oliver's Travels', which inspired my journeys to Orkney and Hadrian's Wall. Oh, Plater, you did choose the most glamorous places!


Monday, 8 September 2014

Holiday Ramblings VI: "Jellyfish" (Day 7)

In which the penultimate day comes to a tired end, and a list is made.

Ah, the inevitable day when "Well, do it anyway!" derailed completely and ended up in the ravine amidst sneering cacti and applauding jellyfish in a nearby bay. It had to happen eventually, and predictably it would be in Marseille. This city did greet me on my first morning here, way back at the beginning of the trip, with a seagull pecking a pigeon to death in the street and again with a dead rat there this morning. When French cities do the grimy side street cliché they go all the way. In fact, the extremes seem to be far further apart than in Britain, between charm and grime. C'est la vie.

As the cars beep endlessly - someone blocked the street to deliver some shop supplies - and in futility, it's interesting to note how this derailing occurred by trying to repeat something good rather than doing something new. It might have been tempting fate far too much, if you believe in fate. "Well, do it anyway!" will be back, but it might need a bit of a rest.

The attempt was repeat the beach of St Estevé in the Frioul archipelago, the that was laid waste by that scourge of swimming: Jellyfish! Little purple alien creatures of unproven self-awareness dumbfounded everyone. Were they dangerous? Were they not? Combined will all the swept in tidal trash that hadn't been there the day before, and a resurgent sun that had been hiding behind a cloudbank for much of the morning, it was effectively ruined. Even the search for a postbox in Marseille was ridiculous, the only one seemingly to be found at the post office. Strange, strange, strange.

The jellyfish, tennis ball sized in water, nailed down the end of the journey on many levels. Marseille has had none of the easy going charm of Barcelona, but at the same time I don't think I've given it a far chance. The comparative dinginess of my hotel, and the griminess of the street, and the seagull ruined it all before it ever began. The fortresses are faintly pretty in a yellow stone citadel way, the cathedral is pretty high up on that hill, but none of it pops. Everything gets swept up in the aimlessness of a holiday's last day. Soon there will be no more enforced eating out, or activities almost but not quite done, or loneliness of the person in the throng. Soon there will be sleep.

What a busy holiday it has been, though, loaded with a mass of fascinating experiences:

A board game shop hunt;
Font Magica;
Barcelona Aquarium;
Park Guell;
Casa Battló;
Botero's Cat and the Meditation Statue;
A sailing trip;
Good and bad paella, and Greek food;
A meal with strangers;
Barcelona Zoo;
Chateau d'If and the Frioul Archipelago;
Quantities of postcards;
Note taking galore!

For only five effective days, it's a massive amount, far too much in fact. No wonder exhaustion has set in! Even on the trip home there will be a sidetrip to the Orcs Nest board game shop in London, on the way from St Pancras to Victoria. That's a nice shop, by the way, very cute. To do that, though, there will need to be less tiredness. There is only one cure for exhaustion, and only one way to prepare for a super-early train. It is time to sleep, and early.


Sunday, 7 September 2014

A bizarre hodgepodge of influences

Recovering from a holiday takes time. Recovering from interviews takes time, as does preparing for them. Recovering from anything takes time. The last week and a bit have been all of those things and none of them in the aftermath of the ridiculous France/Spain trip. It's maddening and deadening, as is worrying for someone far far away. At least that's done with for now.

An interview looms, and a presentation needs to be written after stalling for a week, but instead... instead perhaps it's time to clear the head. A long time ago, in another land far far away, bad things happened. The effects linger on, and it is only with time for reflection that you realise that those ripples just never go away. It's fascinating, and just a little ridiculous, how the ripples go in and out with the tides. The stresses of life and pent up emotions can get all bottled up, the world gets all the more abstract, and before you know what's going on everything's grey at the edges! It's one of the grand perils of solitude, that greyness, that slightly singed feeling that somehow chimes with that smokey powdery smell of a paperback that's been around a bit too long, undusted.

Solitude is grand and wonderful for the effete and standoffish, but it does have perils. You become more influenced by books, and films, and radio, and television than many other people would be. Lessons from life experience are drawn from fiction and biography, and emotional outlets occur behind a closed door while waving giant pencils in air conducting practice. The influences become legion, and then become forgotten, unless you happen to get brave and reopen a box. As a poet said, probably it was me, never said it was a good poet,  "Sometimes you just gotta let it out! Or you will for lifetime badly pout!" Ouch, that hurt for a couplet made up on the spot. Go ahead, reopen the box, even if it is from before the land far far away. Join up the dots.

If our humanity is a measure of how we react, then what does it need to be prompted to react at all? I have no idea, and I am human, and sometimes need prompting. Well, sometimes I'm an air conductor or a writer of insane things that no-one ever gets to read, but mostly human. Except on Sunday afternoons. To feel is something special, and to find things that can help that is valuable beyond all hope of knowing, and those things form the Bizarre Hodgepodge of Influences. Sadly there's not a great acronym to go with that, but it does have a scruffy little bush for a logo. The bush grows.

The Hodgepodge expands slowly. I just watched The fifth season of 'Community' on DVD and there were moments that sank into the bush as if they'd never been anywhere else. That show is amazing, and heartfelt, and just a little clinically insane. Awesome. Sadly on a season-by-season basis you can never tell what's going to happen but tears and joy will pop in sometimes (except Season 4, which has a troubled backstory, not involving llamas). 'Parks and Recreation' is also good, but I mainly watch for the mighty and touching Ron Swanson doing what only he can do (see end of Season 6 opening two-parter). Steven Moffat can make you jump in the air and do cartwheels with some of his 'Doctor Who' endings, a miraculous performer.

Is it possible that there is a romantic at work somewhere inside this writer? The writer that is me? Surely not! If not, then why be moved by the 'Star Trek' novel 'First Frontier' or Columbo smashing that weight on Leonard Nimoy's desk, or the end of 'A Tale Of Two Cities' where poor self-ruined Carton finds himself in his own sacrifice. What does it all mean anyway if not romanticism? Madness? Or is it all just ripples in the fabric of who we all are? Some people feel the ripples and others fake it or try to make it. What does it mean to be moved by Woody getting the girl at the end of 'Condorman'? Terminal sappiness? That's probably not so bad.

Sunday, it was a Sunday evening when I wrote this, after an oddball couple of days. In a moment all focus will have to get back to presentation writing but for now lets just relax and feel the ripples. If there are ripples then at least the world's still moving out there somewhere. Ain't it nice?