Sunday, March 27, 2011

What is 'Anyway'?

You may, or may not, recall that some time ago, inspired by Sharon Astyk’s Anyway challenge I had decided to tackle my own life. You may wonder if I’ve achieved anything. Hm. More on that later. Perhaps when I’ve achieved something.

But let’s take a step back. Let’s begin with 'The Theory of Anyway’. This is Pat Meadow’s theory, popularised by Sharon and it makes absolute sense to me. Many of the things I do cause my friends and colleagues to wonder. Why take public transport, for example, when I could get where I am going more easily (sometimes) by driving? My often-incoherent answer is made up of various points that come down to, ‘I think it’s the right thing to do.’ The component thoughts that lead to this conclusion for this particular choice are these.

If I need to travel I should pick the option that emits the lowest amount of carbon dioxide. Climate change is cumulative and my decision will not, on its own, make a noticeable difference but it contributes to the problem and it’s the right thing to do anyway.

Similarly for transport congestion. Going anywhere by road in Sheffield is unpleasant because of the huge numbers of, mostly singly occupied, cars on the road. The car advert where a couple of gorgeous young people speed thrillingly along empty roads through glorious countryside is a dream. The reality is lines of little boxes on wheels, some shaking with heavy bass, containing grumpy unhealthy people, inching forward enshrouded in a miasma of their own exhaust fumes. Again, this is cumulative. One car on the road could get anywhere in the city in minutes. When everyone tries to do it unpunctuality ensues. Getting out of that collective misery takes away only my small contribution to gridlock but it’s the right thing to do and I do it anyway.

Then there is effective use of resource. I am struck by this when I look at the clutter of close-parked cars occupying all conceivable curb-side positions, and some frankly inconceivable ones, around where I live. During the day the street doesn’t clear, although there are fewer cars. The value in terms of money, embodied energy and resource tied up in these machines is vast. I know. I sold my car to pay for a kitchen. It’s not just the capital cost either. It’s the ongoing cost of tax, fuel, insurance and maintenance. If we owned our means of transport collectively think of the money and space that could be freed up. The road I live on is a tetris of steel, plastic & glass; without cars it is spacious, quiet, safe – a place for kids to play and adults to sit around chatting. Once a year when we close it for the street party. I can’t do anything about my neighbours’ choices but I can choose not to own a car myself. It’s the right thing to do; I should do it anyway.

The last two things are clear positives for me. One is exercise. For some years I used to drive to the gym, work out on the treadmills and steppers and bikes whilst watching MTV and then drive home again. ‘Like the doped white mice in the college lab.’ Being inherently lazy and having a certain amount of sense I have always struggled to exercise with the only aim being getting fit. My radical idea is to combine travel and exercise. Instead of walking to nowhere on an exercise machine I can walk outside, see the seasons change and arrive somewhere new, if only at work. Walking or cycling to my (fairly local) destination is the right thing to do for my health and wellbeing.

And finally, the time issue. I can get somewhere faster by driving, all being well and assuming no one has had an accident anywhere on my route. (I occasionally listen to Sally Traffic on a Friday afternoon just to remember how horrid driving can be.)
I’m not saying there are no delays on trains. Obviously not. But during the delays you can still get to the toilet, get a cup of tea, catch up with your mail etc. And if the delay is longer than an hour you can get a refund of the fare. But that is only one aspect of the time issue. In terms of actual time spent in travel, public transport requires more, but what you can do with that time, the quality of the travel time, is better on a train. You can read, write, work, knit, sleep, chat to your fellow travellers (or hide in the private aural world of your iPod), eat your lunch, drink a bottle of wine or just gaze out of the window. I am prepared to ‘spend’ a little extra time on public transport in order to enjoy the time I spend travelling. For me it is the right thing to do.

You can see that I am little short of perfect. Except last week Julia dropped me off at college and Doug gave me a lift home from Julia’s after a particularly fun evening at her house. This weekend I made Ian take me to a garden centre to buy two pots and two bags of ericaceous compost for planting blueberry bushes into. The first two trips were pure lazy indulgence, the last could not have been done without a car. What I am hoping to achieve is a minimisation of indulgence trips.

There are many other choices that I apply ‘Anyway’ to. Generally, like the issue of transport choices, they are built on a number of reasons. Why eat seasonally and locally? Why cook from scratch? Why eat at non-chain restaurants and cafes? Why make my own clothes? Why grow my own food? Why work for a small environmental consultancy? Why have a store of food in the house? Why be polite to people? Why try to form my own picture of what is true and important? Some of the reasons are based on a perception of environmental limits, on a sense of fairness, and some are just because I enjoy my choice but all come under the heading of ‘It’s the Right Thing To Do’, and that I should do it Anyway.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Books 'n' stuff

I read 'Cannery Row' when I was in my teens. I reread it whenever I need to. Recently I have been prompted to search it out from my chaotic bookshelves by Powells. 

Do you know of the wonderful, fiendish service Powells provide? Powell's Books is based in Portland, Oregon and their shipping costs, among other things, prevent me from buying from them and yet, generously, as any pusher will, they send me teasers to what my appetite. Every morning a little email of temptation arrives in my inbox. I first came upon the review service as a reference in Suzette Haden Elgin's live journal and signed up unthinkingly at the end of 2007. Since then I have received a book review every day. All sorts of books are reviewed, new and old. The reviews come from a number of sources. Some are dull and endless and I give up way before the end. Some are erudite and although I have no interest in buying the book I enjoy the easy acquisition of a superficial knowledge on its subject. Some are so tantalising that I buy the book. Amazon UK do very well out of Powell's generosity. The full list of books reviewed can be found here.

Actually, whilst I'm sharing I ought to note Sam Jordison's blog at the Guardian. I visit this page infrequently but when I do I can lose a whole afternoon. Currently he is revisiting the Hugo awards as well as the Bookers and has got up to Rendezvous With Rama. Intelligent, accessible and even the comments are worth reading.

Anyway, back to Powell's review a day. On the 5th March Cannery Row was reviewed by Doug Brown. This is a nicely short review that sent me searching for my dog eared old copy. It took a while to locate as the end of the alphabet hasn't been ordered on my bookshelves yet (it's only been 3 & 3/4 years). Finally there it was, socialising with the elderly Sturgeon books. They have a lot in common, not least a sympathetic understanding of the less than perfect members of humanity.

Cannery Row was based on Monterey in California. The days of the sardine cornucopia that fed the canneries is long gone and that area of Monterey has been tidied up. Monterey Bay Aquarium and Steinbeck memorabilia have taken the place of that industrial wasteland. The majority of the characters inhabiting this slender book would be treated with suspicion by the nice new attractions in the area, and rightly so. 

At the centre of this book are Mack and the boys living in the Palace Flophouse & Grill, and Doc, a scientist making his living by harvesting, preserving and sending off for study the various creatures of the sea edge. At the centre of the book is a party. These alone would make it a good book but the cast of characters from Lee Chong with his 'anything' shop, through Dora, the magnificent madam of the Bear Flag Restaurant to Frankie, a little boy unable to learn but full of yearning and love, make this book a wonder. The short chapters make it ideal for 5 minute train journeys and the sea shore makes it astonishingly beautiful. The 'orange and speckled and fluted nudibranchs' who 'slide gracefully over the rocks, their skirts waving like the dresses of Spanish dancers', the gorgeous but deadly anemones, the nervous Hermit crab moving house, the murderous octopi, inhabit the tranquil lovely pools of low tide as Doc picks his way through them looking for specimens. All this to the sound of sacred music and the crashing of waves in the distance. Even better, there is a sequel, Sweet Thursday, hiding somewhere in the bookcases. And before that, I am going to order Cannery Row in hardback so when this sad copy finally falls into separate pages I have a robust replacement. This is a book to keep forever.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


I went in to town today in between checking out an allotment site (more on that later) and going to lunch at FFW. I wanted to sort out a Nationwide ISA and in order to transfer funds I had to go to the branch in the town centre. Next to the City Hall. This is probably meaning nothing to anyone outside Sheffield right now but anyone living in Sheffield knows that the LibDem conference is being held at the City Hall in Sheffield over the weekend and we have a bitter taste of what it might feel like to live in a police state.

There was something of a protest going on based on the fact that a lot of us voted LibDem at the last election as they professed to be the most 'liberal' party in the country, only to find our party supporting a lot of policies that we would never countenance, not least the privitisation of the NHS.

As it happens the police were relatively pleasant, probably joyful to receive excessive overtime and danger payments in a time of pay cuts.

I made my way through the barricades to my building society and signed the relevant paperwork. Other than the staff and me there was no-one in the branch. Excellent! Some of the staff were terrified. As one women said, 'It only takes one idiot to kick off and they'll be breaking our windows and who knows what else'.

Curious and, it must be admitted, feeling a certain level of dissatisfaction myself, I went for a wander into the heart of the protest. It was an astoundingly good natured event. Despite the banners and shouts I never for a moment felt in danger from anyone on the protest side of the divide although the barking of the police dogs from inside the barriers around the City Hall was very scary. The local Samba band made the event feel like a festival and the number of people with young kids dispelled any notion that this was a dangerous protest. As I walked away I felt a little sorry for the police, unable to partake of this moment of togetherness. Sheffield is a wonderful place to be and on a cool spring day to feel at one with people protesting the dismantling of our social system was good.

It was very strange to see large forces of police, out on the edge, 'protecting' the people from the people. It reminded me of the sad divisions and fear generated by the miner's strike. I hope we can keep our senses together and remember that protest is one of the things that stops us making stupid mistakes and that disagreeing with government policies and decisions does not make us either bad or dangerous people.

Strangely, outside Sheffield I don't think anyone is very aware of these protests. My choice would be to make my feelings known at the next election but I may be wrong and that might be too late. I'm very glad that there are people still passionate enough to protest in this sad and scared little island.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The History of Science Fiction

Ian sent me the link to this wonderful map/graphic/monster. It is zoomable and well worth mousing through for a few hours. Enjoy!

Monday, March 7, 2011

A jolly nice weekend

Ian was back from America this weekend and drove down to see me. Hurrah! We’d had tickets booked for this weekend away for months. It was Eve’s 60th birthday and she was having a party. I like parties. However, a drive from Motherwell to Sheffield then Sheffield to Ware seemed like too much driving for Ian so we decided to let the train take the strain.

Which was all well and good, but having missed lunch at FFW (Food & Fine Wine) for weeks we went there first, Ian dragging our little red trundley bag on wheels and me carrying my knitting and Dune in my new Ecorotic (because sex should be sustainable) bag, a gift from Good Vibrations in San Francisco. Sally came with us and we arrived in good time, a little damp from the grey Sheffield drizzle. The food was excellent, as always, and the Shiraz/Grenache red wine was lovely. And, of course, there was lots to talk about; winery visits and French versus Californian wines and etc. So much so, that we forgot the time a little.

We tumbled out of the door with half an hour to catch our train. On any ordinary day we’d have made it in time but when it’s wet in Sheffield the people who normally walk huddle under bus shelters and catch buses. At every stop it seemed to take forever to load the passengers aboard, the traffic was reluctant to let us out, the lights were against us. To cut a long story to its sad conclusion, despite running we missed the train, bought as an advanced (non-transferrable) ticket. Damn! Two new singles to London would have cost over £120. Oh. I suggested we just ditched the party and went home. Ian was coming round to that way of thinking when he had a thought. How much would it cost on a coach?

We trundled to the bus station where it turned out we could get to London for under £40. We climbed on board and sat in the front seats. As the coach meandered through Sheffield I started to worry about travel sickness but once we got onto the M1 I was fine. It was a revelation. Comfortable, speedy and so cheap! Our fellow passengers were from a very different demographic from those on the train. Other than one small family and the driver we were the only white faces on the bus. Wonderfully, the constant irritating iPhone tones were not heard during the journey, not even ours. I shall be looking at this travel option in the future. We got off at Golders Green and dived Underground heading for Tottenham Hale to pick up the rest of our train journey. We arrived an hour and a half later than planned but otherwise in good order.

Julia and Dougs were already at the hotel so we met to stroll to the Drill Hall together. As we walked other fans emerged from the dark and we converged on the party en masse. The Drill Hall is an interesting place. A huge cavernous space with scattered tables and vast quantities of food laid out on one side, drink on the other. The consensus was to camp out by the wine and so we did, a rowdy fannish table. Luckily the other friends and family members were up for dancing and having a good time. Most of us remained determinedly rooted at our tables, gossiping delightfully.  Despite this I didn’t catch up with Joe and Judith or Rob and Avedon. We need more parties! John’s band was enjoyable, as always and if I hadn’t been so busy chatting I might have danced. Another time. We need more parties! Again, the food was wonderful and I ate more than I should so that at midnight I was ready for my bed. Luckily there were fun activities to keep me going for a little longer. The clearing up, performed as a group activity, didn’t take very long and then Claire and I ganged up on Nolly to get a lift back to the hotel, there to keep the bar open in the traditional fannish manner. Julia arrived a little later, thoughtfully carrying wet wipes so I could divest myself of the makeup I’d put on without thinking how to get it off. A good sized group gradually gathered in the debris of someone else’s party but we gave up by 2am due to a decided lack of stamina. We’re getting old. However, I still maintain, we need more parties.

At breakfast the next morning we heard about the top-of-the-voice argument that had kept Julia awake for much of the night and had disturbed Eve and John as well. What a joy. Nothing could have kept me awake by bedtime but I counted myself lucky that we had been on the floor above. Eve was continuing the celebrations at her local pub but Ian and I thought that one missed train in a weekend was enough and decided to give lunch a miss, heading back to London after checking out.

The problem with this decision, of course, was that we had originally planned to go to the pub so we arrived back in London at 12.30 and our train back to Sheffield wasn’t due until 16.25. That left us with a dilemma. What do you do in London for almost four hours when you don’t want to spend lots of money and you’re dragging a suitcase? Ian found a website on his iPhone that said we could leave the bag at Left Luggage at St Pancras for £6.50. This seemed a bit steep but better than being encumbered. We balked at the £8 it turned out to be when we finally found the place though but, turning away despondent, Ian noticed a sign for the British Library. What a marvellous idea! And so convenient. And open on a Sunday. We scurried over the road and entered paradise.

I know there is a lot to choose from but the very nicest thing about the place is that you can leave your luggage locked up for nothing. The bags were dumped with relief and we headed for the exhibition, Evolving English. This was a fascinating interactive display. My favourite bits were the wall displaying phrases from speeches (‘the Lady’s not for turning’ turned my stomach briefly) and lists of word origins (we’ve borrowed a lot of words over the years) and the dialect machine. Only one of the two machines were working and lots of people gravitated towards it so I didn’t have long to explore it but it was fascinating to listen to recordings of dialect from all over the country. I was disappointed that they didn’t have the Stoke on Trent dialect of my beloved grandparents. My dad commented once that it was strange in Knutton how an ash tray grew leaves and an ash tree was for putting cigarettes out in.

I could have spent hours in the exhibition but my feet were hurting and I get weary of queuing quickly so we ascended into the Sir John Ritblat Gallery to see the ‘Treasures of the British Library’; displays of the most beautiful books, maps and illuminated manuscripts. When we tired of the subdued lighting, presumably needed to protect the displayed material, we went to the cafĂ© for yummy cake and coffee. My lemon curd swiss roll was nice but Ian’s coffee & walnut was better. We shared. As with all such places there was a gift shop. I was fairly restrained. Or at least I walked round picking up everything that I wanted and then walked round again and put most of it back again.

I feel we’ve only just begun to explore this marvellous place and envisage many more train-related visits. I have, in fact, planned an ideal visit for our friend Spike. She should arrive in the UK, maybe spend a day tidying Ian’s kitchen then come to Sheffield to go to FFW and sort out cataloguing and ordering my books before we take her to Sheffield station, gateway to St Pancras, the loveliest station in London. On arrival she could stay in the soon to be completed station hotel at night and live in the library during the day. What could be better? I’m guessing the hotel won’t be cheap though.

So, exhausted, we retrieved our bags and adjourned to the John Betjeman pub at St Pancras for an early lunch before sprinting for our train and heading back for Sheffield. We bickered gently about what to listen to on our shared earbuds, beginning with an ELO genius playlist, sliding off into depression with Justin Currie and ending up with jolly songs and Eliza Doolittle.

It just remains for me to thank Eve for a great party, Claire for some useful advice, Nolly for the lift, Julia for the wet wipes, Dave Hicks for the promise of a fanzine cover, the British Library for being wonderful and Ian for coming back despite the lure of Californian wineries. We need more parties!

PS Have a look at the British Library podcasts