Sunday, January 30, 2011

Reflections on books

When I read a good book it consumes my attention for as long as it takes to finish it. If I have to put it down in order to, say, interact with my beloved I resent it, feel guilty for resenting it then forget both emotions immediately as I dive back into the action. Meals degenerate into something that can be made in a couple of minutes and eaten without attention. Sandwiches are a mainstay of my diet when reading.  Given that I quite like my relationship with Ian and I really would like to have friends other than Miles Vorkosigan, Shevek, Tycho Potter, Susan Pevensey, Felix Castor, Sam Starfall et al, I don't read nearly as much fiction as I used to. There have been times, far distant now, where I would read all through the night to finish a book and zombie through my work the next day. I can't afford to do that either. 

Another feature of my reading style is that I have no memory at all. Oh, some books I have read so many times that I remember them wholesale but I do my best to avoid that happening. I love being able to re-read a book and only encounter a faint feeling of familiarity. It means I don't have to buy so many books though sometimes I read something not worth a second read because I've forgotten the mediocrity of it. I should really have re-homed some of my books.

Of course my memory problem has a positive side. I can't hold a decent grudge because I don't retain the vehemence of my emotions, and sometimes even forget the cause. I can occasionally find notes around the place, often used as bookmarks, reminding me of important things. These are seldom effective but luckily some things stick from being thought so many times. I can remember, 'Don't trust Tony Blair' and 'I really shouldn't have had the second bottle of wine'. Over the last dozen years, as I've mentioned before, my backup has been rereading my old fanzines. Given that I've now got a big hard-drive and Time Machine makes backing up easy I thought I might try to keep some sort of log of what I've read and whether it might be worth a second reading in the future. I'd backdate it but, other than 'I Shall Wear Midnight', 'The Downhill Crocodile Whizz' and the five Liadan books I read over the Christmas break I can't really remember so I'll start my list with 'Moonfall' by Stephen Baxter.

I shall also attempt to put the books that I don't love in the 'Ready for Fostering' box.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A transport of delight

I was talking about my preferred mode of travel during the lunch break of a course I was delivering last week. It's come up a number of times in recent months, maybe because of the inclement weather. I travel by public transport. 

Many years ago, when I was the environmental management representative for a company implementing ISO 14001 we had an environmental consultant visit us to do a legal compliance audit. I asked him for his car registration to let reception know because we always played car park Tetris - double parking was necessary. 'I came by train,' he said and I vividly remember thinking, how very odd! I am now doing that odd thing myself. I think it is a function of being aware of all the environmental issues. As a consultant I spend an appreciable amount of time keeping up with environmental news and researching environmental impacts. Transport is one of our big ones. Not only does it emit about a quarter of the UK's greenhouse gases, the congestion and pollution caused is choking our cities and making them unpleasant places to be. We cart around large quantities of steel, plastic, glass and polluting liquids to get us from one car park to another and during some parts of our commute we move so slowly and intermittently that we are almost parked then. On Tuesday morning I walked towards work in Sheffield. I stopped to chat briefly to an acquaintance at Hunter's Bar roundabout and was overtaken (very slowly) by a huge Co-op delivery lorry. After completing my conversation I headed up Brocco Bank. I'm not a power walker, in fact my preferred speed is the gentle stroll, but on reaching the top of the hill I had to hang around for a couple of minutes for the lorry to appear in my photo. It's not very effective to travel by powered transport in Sheffield at rush hour.

So, yes, but public transport. Isn't that a bit horrid? I haven't found it to be horrid at all. It's generally very relaxing as long as you reserve a seat when travelling on the more popular trains, and none of the buses I've caught have required me to stand. What it does mean, generally, is that I have to set off earlier and arrive home later than I would by car, although by no means always. The journeys usually take longer but that time can be used. I dislike driving to a venue to present training because it means I have to review the slides the day before rather than on the journey. Similarly, when I have performed an audit I will get most of the report written up on the train on the way home. The time is not wasted as it is when driving; listening to drivel on the radio. If I don't want to work I can read, knit, or just look out of the window. The train journey from Sheffield to Manchester through the Pennines is lovely in the summer and preferable to the impatient idiots overtaking on the Snake Pass at any time of year. The journey to Edinburgh or Glasgow along the East Coast line is also lovely with stunning views at Durham, Alnmouth and Berwick and along the coast up to Eyemouth. I love train travel everywhere but around London, where I tolerate it because the alternative is so much worse. I've had some fascinating conversations (except around London) and when I'm feeling anti-social I plug in my i-Pod.
In order to make sure I get a reserved seat I book my train travel on the internet. I use the East Coast website because it doesn't charge you for using a credit card or for picking the ticket up at the station. And because I'm used to it. Other train companies and the Trainline sell tickets for all journeys. I book as far in advance as I can and doing this means not only can I get a seat but if I can be sure of my travel times I can usually get cheap tickets. The Moneysaving Expert has useful tips on this here. I also keep a lookout for offers. East Coast sent me one around Christmas which had a single to anywhere on their network for £8. I promptly booked two weekends in Scotland. The travel for each weekend cost £16. You certainly couldn't drive for that.
Yes, but if you're not going to a city centre a train is no good you say. I must admit that the integrated transport system that the various governments have said we will have anytime now still doesn't seem to be in place but in the last four years there's only been a couple of places I haven't been able to get to by public transport, both in Yorkshire. Apparently it used to be possible to get to Heckmondwike but the service was discontinued. It's possible to get to the top of the M606 in Bradford but it takes hours. When I drove, though, it took going on for three hours. About the time it would have taken by train and bus. The M1/M62/M606 were pretending to be carparks on the day I went.
It is a good point though. I often need a connection from the station to my final destination. I use two methods here. One is the TrainTaxi website. This lists all the train stations in the UK and the local taxi companies serving that station. Obviously if you are arriving at a large(ish) station like Sheffield you can expect black cabs and the site notes this. For smaller stations it is prudent to call the day before. My only problem with taxis has been because I haven't kept an eye on the calendar and neglected to get in with an early booking on the two days of travel during Eid. Not a mistake I will make again! The wonderful A.B.Cars still got me from Garforth station to the Holiday Inn in time for my presentation and amazingly cheaply and then brought me back the purse I'd dropped in the cab. I never used to use taxis. I thought them an extravagance, but the cost of a taxi on top of the train fare has only once been comparable to the mileage and is often much less, and I pass these savings on to the client.

If money is tight, as it has been these last couple of years, you might still decide to avoid the cost of a taxi. I did this recently on a trip to Tanfield Lea in County Durham. I looked up its location on Googlemaps and realised it was about equidistant from Durham and Newcastle, around 14miles. That looked like an expensive couple of trips in a taxi so I looked on Transport Direct. It turned out that there was a bus that took me to within a couple of hundred yards of my destination and though it took 3/4 of an hour longer the entire journey was pleasant. Not so much going back. Someone threw themselves in front of the train just outside Sheffield. We were waiting an hour whilst the emergency services dealt with it and probably the train driver dealt with the emotional problems he/she must have felt. At least, though, we were warm, in a lighted carriage and could go to the loo. After quarter of an hour there was also complementary hot drinks and those going past Sheffield got sandwiches too. Very much more comfortable than the hours I've spent on various occasions sitting on motorways waiting for debris to be cleared.

The only advantage I see to driving to places for work is that you can take lots of stuff. Indeed, when I had a car I had to occasionally empty out the accumulated stuff and take it back into the office. The ecologists couldn't head off with their newt traps on public transport but with a laptop & a bag of paper I can and I feel that should, not just because of my environmental principles but because it makes my life better.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Be my downfall...

The music of Justin Currie and Del Amitri has permeated my life for the last ten years, so when Ian found that he was playing in Holmfirth (Last of the Summer Wine country) I could only say, 'Buy the tickets, now, quickly, right away!' There were a fair number of people waiting outside the Picturedrome who obviously hadn't done that. Poor them. It was a fab gig.

Ian complains regularly that my iPod is full of Del Amitri. It's not exclusively DA based but whenever I change the music on my iPhone I always include all Del Amitri (and Pete Atkin). It's lovely, if somewhat depressing, music, the lyrics are intelligent and Justin has a gorgeous voice. At some times in my life I have felt very much like I was 'Driving With My Boots On' and when I first heard 'Just Getting By' it made me cry and reassess my life. If I ever had a Desert Island Discs Justin would provide half the songs. In 2002 the (stupid) record company dropped Del Amitri and since then the Uncle Devil Show and Justin's solo music have fulfilled my DA oriented needs.

As is often the case, once we'd bundled Sally into Ian's car and headed for whimsical Holmfirth (it was dark, no whimsy was apparent) she asked, 'Who are we going to see?' Ian sort of explained. He mentioned that cynical love songs were a feature of what we were likely to hear and set his iPod to give her a small amount of familiarity. He also noted that at least half the women there would be thinking, 'I could make you happy Justin, if you'd just notice me.' Then we slavishly followed the satnav as it wound us around some of the nastiest, most poorly lit, randomly speed limited roads in the area. Sadly the satnav's conception of where Mezze was seemed extremely inaccurate so we drove up and down the town and then, having parked at the Co-op, wandered around looking for it. It's a nice little restaurant, probably worth visiting Holmfirth for in its own right, but if you do, get there early. It opened at 6pm. We arrived at 6.10. By 6.20 it was packed and people were having to wait for tables. The food was yum.

So, sated and sleepy, we headed back down to the Picturedrome to queue for the limited number of seats. I'm too old to stand at a gig. I think the venue has a 500 capacity and it was clear that Justin could have filled a somewhat bigger building by the number of people piteously begging to buy tickets. The twenty minutes in the queue didn't wake us up nearly as much as the chill in the venue. Never mind though. I had my jacket on and they were selling Timothy Taylor's Landlord at the bar. Splendid! We settled in to watch the support act who was quite good but not very varied and whose name I didn't catch. Sadly, by the time we were waiting for Justin the standing area immediately behind our seats was packed. The disadvantage to a licensed venue is that there will then be people who are less balanced and have forgotten that they can't sing, should never sing, no really, certainly not at the top of their voices. 

Justin arrived on stage at 9pm on the dot. He'd abandoned the slicked back hair of recent videos and looked much better in a casual sort of way. He started with Del Amitri songs, doing very well playing the guitar, keyboards and iPod to accompany himself given that he is a bass player. The loud tuneless woman behind us, in between hitting Sally and me on the head with her handbag, started shouting for 'Be My Downfall'. Sigh. The first request he took was, 'Nothing Ever Happens' which in many ways is dated, we don't play music from records using needles anymore, but ln other ways is still spot on. We'll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow. He sang all the way through the Del Amitri songbook and started on his solo work. I've listened to it all in that odd way that you listen to shuffled iPod music, unconnected to its context and whilst doing other things; walking, working, talking. I realised now as I listened to many of the songs that I'd never really given them the attention they deserve. This was less true of the Del Amitri songs that I've had, in the past, on CD but Justin's solo work, whilst familiar, was a revelation to me. In particular, 'No Surrender' summarises our society in a quintessential Justin song, perceptive, thoughtful, depressing, defiant and beautiful. Here it is, for those who've missed it:

Justin finished his set and left the stage briefly. He didn't bother climbing the two flights of stairs to the dressing room as we all knew he wouldn't be allowed to go. The encore gave us a further five or six songs (I didn't take a note book and have no memory) and finished with 'Be My Downfall', beautiful and perfectly performed. This time he departed to rapturous applause but didn't return. If I had thought there was the least chance I'd have stood there clapping for hours. I've been to many plays and concerts where, even though I've enjoyed them, I've been bored in places and I've sort of looked forward to the end. That really wasn't the case here. It was the best gig I've been to in years. On the way in I had mentioned that I thought the recent Jackson Browne concert had been good and Ian contended that the Proclaimers had been better; sparky and exciting. I admitted that going to see Justin was far more exciting than anything we'd seen. Not only was I not disappointed, he far exceeded my expectations.

On the way home Ian observed that he hadn't realised before how exceptional Justin's voice was. It was a long show, some of the songs are complex, he accompanied himself with a guitar or a very sparse keyboard. The whole show was carried on the strength of his singing. Giving who he is and what he is singing, beautiful doesn't seem an appropriate word. I'll borrow from my young colleagues and characterise is voice and performance as awesome. 

Sunday, January 2, 2011

We usher in another new year

I'm feeling a little doomy this morning but that may be a combination of the tenacious hangover and having spent an hour washing up and not even got half way through the party detritus. The perceptive may have noticed that it is the 2nd today and traditionally the New Year's Eve party is held on the 31st. Yes, well, we sat in among the debris all yesterday, browsing on the leftovers and very slowly moving the empties out into the recycling bin. It was a jolly fine party.

So, to backtrack slightly, Christmas caught me all unawares. Yes, I know it turns up every year but this year a combination of heavy work load, heavy snow and my traditional shopping weekend spent in London meant that I was shocked to arrive at Christmas day almost totally unprepared. I'd knitted a rather nice sweater for Jack that he accepted with good grace and provided him and Sally with a set of silk long johns and a vest. Sally, used to living in the cold, was pleased. Jack, Tucked up in overheated university accommodation, tactfully hid his conjectures about my madness. I got some rather splendid work clothes, four excellent books and some stickers to pimp my wheelie bins; fine gifts.

We drove to Leeds where my sister had cooked a wonderful meal and a chocolate birthday cake for Jack's 21st. I am very sorry to have lumbered the poor guy with a Christmas Day birthday which means he always ends up sharing his celebrations. He seems fairly resigned to it now and realises it could have been worse; I could have named him Noel. And at least he gets to have a special Doctor Who every birthday. This year's special was silly but rather lovely. What a very robust meme the Christmas Carol has turned out to be. And I loved the little fishes of the atmosphere.

So anyway, we've had over a week of holiday now and I've achieved very little. I'd thought that having a small party on New Year's Eve would encourage me to clean and tidy the house but we made the mistake of going to FFW (Food & Fine Wine) for lunch on Friday instead to cleaning the kitchen floor. I did spend the rest of the afternoon in the kitchen making soup (spiced butternut squash without onions), a range of dips (pesto, hummus, fresh herb dip - all very garlicky- and pink grapefruit and cream cheese which was both easy and yummy), a a big tray of cheesejacks. Julia and Dougs arrived with five baking trays of filo pastry delicacies and a huge bowl of chocolate mousse and Fran brought  a plate of spiced beef and marmalade ham together with flavoured vodkas and a rather nice jar of chutney. And then there was the wine. We ate and drank, drank and ate and still there was loads left. The most important thing though, was that we had a lovely fannish new year with Julia & Dougs, and Fran & John from Sheffield and Laura & Paul imported from Birmingham to provide the proper party embellishment (Laura only goes to the best parties). 

So now I think I've indulged myself enough and I'd better think about the next shift in the kitchen of doom.