Thursday, May 01, 2008

I love my MP3

I don't know if I'm alone in this, but I could swear my MP3 has a little sentient creature living inside it. Not a scary Dalek-type creature, but rather more cute and friendly.
It started with the naming. Back when iPods started, Richard got himself a big old Creative Zen Touch (not as cool looking as an iPod, but rather more robust, with a massive memory and a lovely strokey-strokey control panel). Since it wasn't actually an iPod we christened it Pseudopod. Then he bought me a tiny Creative Zen V for my birthday (see picture) - aah, how cute is that! - so of course that became 'Diddypod'. And very happy we have been together ever since.
Now both Richard and I have noticed the tendency of our pods to 'bond' with us. This is particularly strong for Richard and his pseudopod, so much so that it started to play the only song in history (probably) that mentioned the name of the Irish town we were pulling into on a tour (and it wasn't Dublin or Belfast). That's spooky. It frequently selects tracks that are uncannily appropriate. Mine, too, seems to have a mind of its own, though it's rather less in tune with mine (although it seems to have my stubborn streak). For example, judging by how often it chooses them:
It likes Kirsty McColl, but not Suzanne Vega.
It likes Fiona Apple, but not Aimee Mann.
It really really hates '1234' by Feist, and will avoid it if it's in a playlist of 2.
It likes rather jolly and slightly novelty songs on the walk to work - Sparks, Ian Dury, Kaiser Chiefs (it really loves Kirsty McColl's 'There's a guy works down the chipshop swears he's Elvis', which obviously presses all of its buttons); and prefers more mellow stuff on the way home (suits me!)
It likes Prince when I'm in the gym.
Tell me I'm not going mad, that there is something other than coincidence to all this!

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Child of our Time

Richard and I attended a performance of Michael Tippett's 'A Child of our Time' on Saturday, which was a school performance aided and abetted by 4 professional soloists with local connections and a few professional musicians. Oh - and Jordan was in the chorus. I didn't know the piece at all, and my enjoyment of it was not enhanced by the extreme pain transmitted to my buttocks by the hard chairs. However, despite my amazement that the school managed to pull off a creditable if slightly under-rehearsed performance, I have to say I didn't appreciate the composition itself.

Tippett began writing this oratorio in 1938 in response to events surrounding a political assassination by Hershel Grynszpan, events which triggered widespread persecution of the Jews in the Kristallnacht (night of broken glass); the actions of Grynszpan were used by Nazis to justify their actions. Tippett took this concept of scapegoating together with his staunch pacifist sympathies (he was later imprisoned as a conscientious objector) and a bit of Jungian resonance to form the basis of his libretto.

Now I'm not really an appreciator of classical music. I like classical music; I don't like all of it, not by a long way; and I don't often know why I do or don't like something. I liked bits of this. But what I do have strong feelings about is words. And I didn't like these words. I found them rather naff, to be honest. Interestingly Tippett first took the idea of the libretto to T S Eliot, hoping that the great poet would write it for him. It's reported that Eliot declined on the basis that Tippett's music would provide the emotion, and that there was no need for further poetry. I reckon Eliot was being polite, and secretly didn't want to be saddled with such a restrictive brief ('I want it to be about a specific event, but also the universality of conflict, resolution, suffering and oppression together with a bit of acceptance, all wrapped in a Jungian subtext with a smidge of the Bible thrown in for good measure'). So Tippett wrote it all himself. Here's one of my 'favourite' bits:

MOTHER Oh my son! In the dread terror they have brought me near to death.
BOY Mother, mother! Though men hurt me like an animal, I will defy the world to reach you.
AUNT Have patience. Throw not your life away in futile sacrifice.
UNCLE You are as one against all. Accept the impotence of your humanity.
BOY No! I must save her.

...and so on and so on. OK so this is personal taste. But the thing I really objected to was also the thing this piece is often lauded for; the inclusion of several traditional African -American Spirituals. I understand that Tippett was trying to convey the universality of such persecution and suffering, across the sweep of human history. And they certainly worked well in terms of the music (and the words were a welcome relief too!). But I found it hard to stomach hearing about the persecution of the Jewish people alongside Christian songs such as 'Nobody knows the trouble I see'. 'Go down Moses' worked far better, reflecting the Jewish story as it did. Richard was of the mind that these songs were just as alien to the original faith and culture of the African slaves, so therefore they work well as a cross-cultural reference. But I kept wondering how this odd juxtaposition would sound to someone Jewish.

In these times we are perhaps more careful to respect the differences and celebrate the individuality of races and cultures, rather than to embrace the similarities. I am as much a child of my time as Tippett was of his (albeit Tippett was out of step with the prevailing culture, his counter-cultural stance was still one of 1938). I am not sure that I can lay aside my knee-jerk reactions long enough to really appreciate the thought process behind a work such as this.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Many Times

I visited London for the day on Thursday, with my mum and Annie (off school due to the NUT strike). Mum had wanted to visit the Terracotta Army exhibition, but we had failed to get tickets; so instead I took her to see the Juan Munoz retrospective at Tate Modern, which included the piece 'Many Times'. With 100 figures all with similar Chinese features, I reckoned this was the next best thing to the Terracotta Army.
Other people round the world have seen this piece and blogged about it. Lots of people feel a little unsettled by it - the figures all seem to be in on the same joke, leaving the observer feeling as if they are excluded and perhaps as if they are themselves being observed, even ridiculed. I had no such sense, and rather felt joyful in the presence of all these laughing, footless little men. There was something ridiculous about them that made we want to smile the whole time we were in there. One figure alone could not have accomplished this; rather, it was in the lavish repetition that the genius lay. Many other people seemed similarly affected whilst we were there - as viewers were free to wander at will between the figures I positioned myself in a corner and watched as people walked in, all wearing their terribly serious and earnest art gallery faces, then as their expressions changed to smiles and wonder.
Of course all the best art allows the viewer to become a participant in some way, and this was certainly true for our little party. Not only did we wander between the figures, choosing our favourites and imagining the topics of conversation between them. On the way in Annie had caught a tiny caterpillar in her hair, which she had carried carefully around the exhibition (I think she said its name was 'Kevin'). By the time we left the 'Many Times' room it contained 100 small grey resin figures; and one teeny-tiny green caterpillar, sitting on the shoulder of a laughing grey man.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Songs that end well, songs that don't

I heard someone on the radio the other day complaining that too many songs just drift away, fading out instead of ending properly. I think I agree. It led me to think about some favourite - and not so favourite - endings. So, in my opinion...

Songs that end well...

A Day in the Life The Beatles - class.
Big Time Peter Gabriel - altogether now: Big big big big big big big big big big big big big big big!
London Calling The Clash - Morse code moment.
Love Cats The Cure - time for lots of silly dancing. Or is that just me?
Deeply Dippy Right Said Fred - you'll have to trust me on that one.
This Charming Man The Smiths - altogether now - dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum ...diddle-iddle, dum-dum-di-dum-dum, diddle-iddle DUM DUM!
This town ain't big enough for the both of us Sparks - I love a bit of falsetto, me.
Slave to the Rhythm Grace Jones - you're just waiting for that last intake of breath.

Songs that end badly...

Will you? Hazel O'Connor - yes we know you've paid good money for that saxophonist. But he can stop now. No, really. We've had enough.
Atomic Blondie - what a great song. What a dribble away ending. A good example of the type.
War Baby Tom Robinson - someone else who doesn't know when to pull the plug.
Light my Fire The Doors - eek! The last chord is a nails-on-blackboard experience.

And the jury's still out on...

Sinnerman Nina Simone - any of the endings played would have been great. I just think she should have picked one, and stuck to it. The song starts ending after about 7 minutes, and finally grinds to a halt after another 3.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Face off

Richard, Annie and I watched the final part of BBC's 'The Passion' last night with a small amount of trepidation that the usual cynical approach to the resurrection would prevail. We had only watched the previous episode, not the ones earlier in the week: I'm always a bit reticent to see interpretations of Jesus, afraid that someone else's version of Christ will stick in my head in an unhelpful way. Even if the version is potentialy a good one - remembering Zeffirelli's 'Jesus of Nazareth' - it can still 'stick' a bit too well, so that I can feel I'm praying to Robert Powell at times - even now!

But I loved the way that last night's production interpreted two of the gospel readings. The Bible tells us that both Mary in the garden and the two on the road to Emmaus failed to recognise Jesus at first; then 'saw' him in the simple and familiar - Mary as he called her name, and the two as they watched him break bread. 'The Passion' demonstrated this by using different actors, the first one looking more like the original than the second (or was that the same person with different hair, prosthetics etc?), who used some familiar body language and turns of phrase to make both the disciples in the story and the audience wonder if it was the same person or not.

The whole effect made me more conscious of the ordinary humanity of Jesus - dirty fingernails, calloused feet, sunburned face and all; and of the ability he has to get under our skin, to force us to recognise his presence even when everything in us wants to deny it.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Palm Sunday: Imagine if...

Through the dust and fumes of a Spring morning he rode,
Choosing the simplest and most humble of transports.
The crowd began to gather almost at once
As news of this most inauspicious of visitations spread from house to house.
Through the outlying regions he came, gathering momentum, freewheeling where the gradient allowed, smiling at those who had dropped everything to celebrate this moment.
Past Filton, Horfield, Bishopston, Montpelier, he paused at the traffic lights and gazed up the City Road towards St Pauls, not speaking but calling just the same.
Then, onward he cycled, slower now
Through Stokes Croft where the everyday artists sat smoking and waving, and the girls from the massage parlours smiled to acknowledge one who would not condemn.
Crossing to the Barton Roundabout he briefly dismounted
Clattering his bicycle down the ramp so that he could celebrate with those who also had nowhere to call home, as they whiled away the hours drinking toasts to the music of the subway tin whistle.
Back on the bike, chasing the skinny dogs that leaped around his wheels, he turned southwards; passing the temples of commerce and on to the place where the fountains danced for joy. The people came surging forwards now, rushing out of shops and bars to lay their fleeces and their city jackets over the fag-ends and discarded chewing gum at his feet. Unable to contain their wonder they kicked off their shoes and splashed through the fountains, reaching for songs that they half-remembered; then lapsing back into those they did –
- Mr Blue Sky –
- All you need is love –
And ‘Angels’, as some held their lighters aloft, whilst others captured the moment on their mobile cameras.
He did not wait for this photo-opportunity; instead he turned once more, and began the slower ascent up Park Street, pausing only briefly to beckon the clergy from the Cathedral gathered outside on the grass, and swerving to steer in and out of the skateboarders as they put on a show for him.
Laughing, he stood up on his pedals, leaning his head towards the handlebars, aware of those around who likewise bowed their heads.
As he reached the Triangle more crowds gathered, shouting his name now, and ‘Hosanna! Hosanna!’
Children on a school trip to the Museum called out ‘Look this way! This way!’ –
And he frowned,
As the teacher corralled them back into their orderly crocodile.
No sense of order was his domain this day
As the chaos of crowds and the cacophony of praise prevailed
And the traffic was brought to a standstill by one lone cyclist
Who nonetheless was a calm point in the midst of all this
And on whose actions rested all of the upheaval in other peoples’ lives.
Turning towards the Whiteladies Road
He rode on
Because even the rich people need saving.
Office windows were flung open
or lifted to the height that restraints would allow –
as the assembled crowd raised their frothy mochaccinos towards him
then turned back to the priorities of the day.

Ride on.
Ride on.

TAW March 2008

Monday, February 18, 2008

How to sleep during sermons whilst not discouraging the preacher

Some suggested methods....

  1. Glaze over. Does not allow you to close your eyes, but in all other important respects you can sleep. Probably best not to be on the front row for this one.
  2. Develop a habit of nodding your head, David-Gray-style, in order to infer agreement. Eyes may gradually come to a complete closure.
  3. Have a baby, and then time its feeds appropriately. Rather an extreme method unless you're already planning to have a family.
  4. Steal someone else's baby. Note: the child needs to be fairly young, and very compliant, or the opposite of sleep will occur.
  5. Slump forward, head in hands (or resting on pew in front). Only a viable option if it's not the sort of church where this is taken as a sign that you want 'ministry'.
  6. Shout 'Maranatha!' and prostrate yourself in front of the pulpit. Not one to try every week, but useful for special occasions, and very effective - it is possible to stay there for the duration of the service, as everyone will be too embarrassed or too awed to disturb you.
  7. Become the vicar. Gradually leave longer and longer significant pauses between points, during which it is quite possible to grab if not forty then at least ten winks. As you are the preacher, it is unlikely that you will become discouraged by this practice.
  8. Join the worship group, playing a large instrument that you can successfully hide behind whilst snoozing. Your choice will of course depend upon your body size and shape. Do not choose the piccolo.
  9. Develop an 'inconvenient' bowel habit that allows you to sit down somewhere nice and quiet for the duration of the sermon.
  10. Go on the church coffee rota, and take it so seriously that you need to put the kettle on at about the time the preacher stands up. Kitchens are generally nice warm places. On no account drink the caffeine until after a little nap.

Of course, I rarely need to use any of these methods, as the sermons at our church are invariably riveting and excellent (just in case the vicar reads this). But they do prove useful at the occasional wedding, licensing, ordination etc...

Friday, February 15, 2008

String Theory

I read an interesting review in Third Way magazine, of a book 'The Trouble with Physics: the rise of string theory, the fall of a science, and what comes next', by Lee Smolin. Apparently Smolin argues that physics has to some extent 'lost its way' over the past 30 years, having been caught up in its desire to find a 'grand theory of everything' (i.e. to make it all fit together, whether on a cosmic or subatomic scale) and potentially sidetracked by its focus on string theory, which remains an entirely theoretical construct of how the universe 'works'.
Now, I can fit what I understand about string theory on the back of the proverbial postage stamp (and not one of those big Christmas special ones, either); and yet I find myself strangely compelled by it. It's all those lovely BBC documentaries I've absorbed over the years, most lately with odd camera angles, jump cuts and trippy music. What I've gathered is this, in case there's anyone reading this who feels even less informed than I: string theory is a way of squaring a circle, namely that considering matter and energy as fixed points in the universe does not explain many of the seeming discrepancies that have been noted in the world of physics over the past 100 years (note: this is very similar to 'world of leather', but with less slippy surfaces). It is a way of reconciling the 'standard model', that of particles, with 'quantum mechanics', which is about cats. I think.
String theory imagines (not a very 'physics' word, this: explains why I like it) that all 'stuff' exists as impossibly tiny curled-up oscillating strings. For the theory to work it does not require the usual 4 dimensions (FOUR??! I hear you cry. Yes, 4 - 3D + time), but 10 (don't ask. That's the great thing about string theory: you can just stop trying pretty quickly). Because the strings are oscillating so rapidly they seemingly exist in different universes, parallel to one another - a great literary device, if ever there was one. It even has a whiff of time travel, breaking the understood rules of relativity. If you think this all sounds a bit Alice in Wonderland ("There's no use trying," said Alice; "one can't believe impossible things." "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."), then you're not the only one.
Of course, as with so many highly specialist and clever-clogs fields of work the media have fed us all a bit of a fib. There's no such thing as the string theory. What there is is several different theories that all play with a similar concept. And we don't seem to be any closer to discovering some 'grand theory' than we were 30 years ago. It's all pretty tricky. I've always thought that we have lifespan against us with this one - by the time someone has done all the relevant background study, and pondered all the various facets of the problem long enough to get within sniffing distance of something Really Rather Clever, they're pushing up the daisies. Which is why I think the only sane approach is this one: write something silly, and don't try so hard. I think it's fab that there are people out there with both the brains and the will to keep trying to understand it all. Personally I'll leave the Really Rather Clever stuff to Him Who Knows...

String Theory

They say the world is made of strings
Vibrating happily, they sing
Of angels, stars and unknown things:
They say the world is made of string.

The universe is made of string
Elastic bands, that just go ‘ping’
They coil and flex and stretch and fling
Ecstatically lassoing.

Your husband: string. Your children: string.
Your house and car and garden: string.
All matter, live or non-living
Is all a seething mass of string.

If stuff is string, then what’s the string?
What makes this constant wriggling?
This elementary particling
Cannot quite explain everything.

If only we could see this string!
Or feel its gentle quivering!
I fear without our monitoring
This twine will start unravelling.

And if they think this solves the riddle
Of why this world’s in such a muddle
The scientists have not a hope:
It’s all just money for old rope.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Parish Church Preservation Society

We had a gloriously sunny weekend at Lee Abbey, unbelievable weather for February. Photo is of Annie and her friend Molly enjoying the private beach, I opted to be their 'responsible adult' and kept them company for half an hour. The kids generally were a complete delight this weekend, all ages interacting and looking after one another.

I survived lots of singing, and even a banner-waving dance (by the simple trick of taking off my glasses - suddenly I could 'watch' without breaking into giggles. I knew there was a reason God had given me rather rubbish eyesight). Of course, by the end of two days even I felt pretty well-adjusted and bonded etc to my fellow parishioner. I leave you with the following (sung to the tune of the Kinks song 'We are the Village Green Preservation Society', currently being covered by Kate Rusby). As ever, it's written with the great affection I feel for the church. Especially when I've got sand-between-the-toes.

We are the Parish Church Preservation Society
God save flower rotas, polished pews and the PCC
We are the Mission Praise Appreciation Society
God save the Deanery and all Dioscesan Strategy.
Preserving the old ways from being abused

Protecting the new ways for me and for you
What more can we do.
We are the Parish Church Preservation Society
God save those that clean, sing in choir and serve coffee
We are the quiche and salad appreciation consortium
God save the bring and share and all who brung and shared for them.
We are the bended knee, the Choir of Songs and Canticles
Help save all who pray, who really just hope for miracles.
We are the Cut and Stick Storytelling Affiliate
God bless the Sunday School, and all the faithful who’re running it.
We are the birth and death, the Marriage Vow Certificate
God save the Parish Priest, the Wardens and the Bishopric.
Preserving the old ways from being abused

Protecting the new ways for me and for you
What more can we do
God save the Parish Church.

Friday, February 08, 2008


I am very much looking forward to being out of the city, at Lee Abbey for a Church Weekend away as of this evening. The downside is of course having to have breakfast with 130 other people who want to make conversation at some unearthly hour; and having to look excited about yet another 'time of worship'. Those who know me well will know that I struggle with the equation 'singing + shutting your eyes = meaningful engagement with divinity'. I wish, how I wish it did it for me, but....and yes, I do know the argument goes 'but it's not for your benefit...' But a lot of people do seem to get a lot out of it, and I would never wish to stand in their way. But it's not me. I tried. I failed. Sorry. But I digress... reason I am desperate to breathe the Devonian air is the large accumulation of dust that is currently gathering in our house. The loft conversion started on January 2nd and is going well, we now have 2 bedrooms (one very small) plus a bathroom up there that have a floor, nearly all the walls and ceilings, wires and pipes ready for lights and radiators, and a bathtub. In addition to this work we have had some electrics done elsewhere around the house, necessitating much drilling through walls; and a built-in desk created. All this has created clouds of wood, plaster and brick dust. I clean it off the surfaces every night, it's back before morning. It's like some nasty fairytale - the elves slaving away for the shoemaker perhaps, or the girl tricked into spinning every night for the tricksily-named Rumpelstiltskin. Meanwhile I keep catching viruses, one after another, and coupled with the underlying asthma I am living in a permanent fug of blocked sinuses and tightened airways.

Looking on the bright side, the building work should be finished in a couple of weeks. Just the decorating then to do. Richard is currently painting his way through the downstairs, sweeping away the previous blandness with a range of eye-popping colours. We are still debating whether to go for Easyjet Orange in the kitchen. It's very tempting to do so, if only because then we will have actually painted a rainbow - red and yellow and pink and green, orange and purple and blue are the colours of our walls. I have a sneaking suspicion we will be reverting to magnolia for the loft, as some sort of reaction to all this colour...

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Rocket woman

Jordan (age 13) did the IT careers test ('Plan-it') last week. We were not at all surprised when it took her aptitude for science and maths and her desire to do something loving and caring and came up with 'Doctor', along with all manner of other medical careers. It probably helped that she told it 'I want to be a doctor'. However, we were rather more taken aback by the alternative career suggestion - astronaut. Maybe they noted her tendency to appear as though she lives on another planet at times; but I thought that was common to all teenagers.

It still wasn't as entertaining as one of her friends, who had the options of 'actor' (I expect this was due to him telling the computer 'I want to be an actor') or....greengrocer. Computer says no, indeed. We can't possibly imagine what questions the program asked to come up with this conclusion.

'Do you like vegetables?' IF YES...

'Do you like to be in an environment where vegetables are the predominant lifeform?' IF YES...

'Do you like to feel a sense of power over the destiny of vegetables?' IF YES...'GREENGROCER!'


'Do you like vegetables?' IF YES...

'Do you like to be in an environment where vegetables are the predominant lifeform?' IF YES...

'Do you like to feel a sense of power over the destiny of vegetables?' IF NO....'ACTOR!'

...or something like that (apologies to any non-vegetable-like actors out there).

Friday, January 18, 2008

The art of application

I had a very depressing day on Wednesday, shortlisting applicants for 2 staff nurse posts. Normally we get just a handful of applications, Dermatology being a bit of an unknown quantity to many nurses and outpatients being viewed as a backwater (not so: but I don't need to convince you now). So we teamed up with orthopaedics outpatients to advertise a post apiece, and were most surprised to get a grand total of 62 applicants. Both Tuesday and Wednesday mornings were spent staring at a computer - we also had a new shortlisting online system to get to grips with - and sifting the wheat from the chaff.

Now I've been on the other side of things, and know the desperate feeling when you need to get out of one job and romp across the proverbially green grass on the other side of the fence. You'll apply for jobs that in no way match your knowledge and skills, and I'm sure I've put in the odd application form with a whiff of desperation about them. But around 30 of these were on a different scale entirely. Nurses from India, Pakistan, The Phillippines and Nigeria all stuck working in Nursing Homes and wanting to work in the NHS. They assured me in broken English that their communication skills were excellent; they reassured me that they knew how to operate all the acute monitoring equipment that we never use in outpatients. They told me they had work permits, or if they didn't that they soon would have. One begged me (please please please give me a chance...); one told me they needed the job so that they could stay with their family; one simply wrote, 'I am a refugee'. Not one (I tell a lie: we shortlisted one from overseas) met the criteria we were looking for. By the end of all that I felt cruel, which is not a feeling I have very often and certainly not one I enjoyed. I wonder what will happen to all those nurses - how many will stay, working in nursing home jobs that they hate and missing their experience in acute wards. I suspect that many of our elderly population will be nursed into their dying days by unhappy staff a long way from home. I wonder how that will feel for both carers and residents.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Chim chim cheroo

The chimney sweep came to sort out two of our chimneys today. Most disappointing. For one thing, he was called Nigel, instead of Bert - very un-sweep-like. For another his methods were untraditional. He had one of those big chim-chim-cheree brushes, but it was yellow not black; and he mainly used an industrial hoover. Also, there was a complete absence of small boys (in varying sizes, ranging from 'tiny' to 'really rather small', to fit every size and shape of flue) in cloth caps waiting to do a cheery song-and-dance routine. Which was a great pity, because we have the scaffolding up for our loft conversion at the moment, so I was fully expecting to join Nigel and a cast of thousands for a Mary Poppins singalong on my roof. As it was, Nigel looked at me a little oddly and asked who I was talking to just because I was discussing the weather with the cat. I don't think the man had much imagination.
Anyway, £50 later (yes, really. If I'd realised I'd have shoved the end of the Dyson, and probably the fluffier one of our cats for good measure, up the chimney myself) we have two chimneys that are considerably less full of debris. They may not be clean enough to eat your dinner off, but hopefully they won't drop bits of mortar all over a) our fire, and b) our bedroom floor, respectively.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Season's Greetings

I have just seen the first advert of the year for Cadbury's Creme Eggs.

On January 2nd.

How depressing.