Category Archives: Articles

The nights are drawing in

You know that guy, the guy who says, right after the longest day, “Well, the nights are drawing in again”. Party pooper. Git.

I am not that guy, thankfully. I am, however, a pedant and what I would like to point out to that guy is that the summer nights are not actually drawing in. In fact, sunset will continue to get later until the middle of August but the mornings are instead drawing in, and at a faster rate than the evenings are getting later, so yes the days are getting shorter but sunset is getting later. I usually restrain myself because the pedant is just another type of party pooper.

I was explaining this to a friend recently and they asked me the perfectly reasonable question, “Why?”.

The answer is pretty straight forward. Noon is getting later in the day.

Ok, I’ll try again. Basically noon is when the sun is directly above you. And this is because that’s how time used to work, we didn’t care about globally consistent time keeping. We needed a way to keep our clock set correctly. And so what you would do previously was every day at noon you would set your clock to noon and then you’d hopefully be right for the next 24 hours – or right enough. The problem is that noon changes all the time, as does the sun rise and sunset time, but we don’t reset our clocks any more, which is why we experience this drift. Now noon on the clock is exactly 24 hours after the last time it was noon, rather than related directly to what the sun is doing.

Long time readers of this blog will know that I have been attempting to convince the world that it is time for a new calendar. But clocks could easily have been quite different too. There was a rival clock system in place which could have been chosen (you can still see one of the last surviving working version in Florence). The alternative idea was that actually noon is a bit tricky to measure. When is the sun directly overhead? You use a stick and a shadow, but what if you don’t have a stick? Sunset (or in theory sunrise) is much easier to measure. When you can’t see the sun anymore, that’s sunset. This alternative version was mainly used by farmers who presumably didn’t have sticks to hand or were using them for something else. The problem with this system was two-fold, one that midday was way more accurate than sunset to measure (what if there was a mountain in the way), and there were actually two forms of this sunset clock – one that was based on sunset, and the other that was based on “half an hour after sunset” which is a bit trickier to be accurate with when you don’t have an accurate clock.

The point is this, it is pretty much random that noon is 12 o’clock and that it happens to be when it’s mainly midday. We could have used the Italian system and had 24 o’clock be at sunset which would make noon around 17 o’clock. To us it seems crazy, but there is no natural order to this system. In fact, we are abstracting from the natural order of what we had. Why is new year in Europe in January? Why is new year in Asia in Spring? Surely if we think about it rationally, the Asian version makes more sense than the European version. The world is new in Spring and that’s when the year begins. In Britain, we used to celebrate new year that way, that’s why our tax year still starts in April for example.

But the French and then Pope Gregory wanted to fix time and the calendar, and so all of this changed in the 1500s.

But if they could fix the calendar and time itself, why can’t we? More of this shortly…

Wedding Party

I was about to start by saying, “I’ve been to a lot of weddings”. But then I realised that I have absolutely no grounds for saying this. I have been to more than 20 that I can remember off the top of my head. Is that a lot? I don’t know. They have varied in style quite considerably: I’ve been to humanist weddings, registry office weddings, high church weddings, low church weddings. I’ve been to a Quaker wedding, a wedding of somebody named Baker, and if you know any candlestick makers, tell them I’m happy to attend.

Some of the weddings I have been to have been surprising depersonalised. They seem to be perfectly lovely affairs where all the flowers have been great, the room has been decorated to look like it is out of a magazine, which I suppose it is, and the reality of the day has been almost airbrushed out. Sometimes, even with these more stuffy affairs, a bit of personality will leak out. In my experience, this is often if the couple have known the priest / vicar for a long time. I suppose that this is because they do weddings day in and day out, and otherwise there would be nothing that surprising for them, and they would rather take the captive audience they have and expand their minds.

The best of these are priests who don’t just talk about scripture, and don’t just automatically do the feast at Cana and all that jazz. The best talk about what is actually happening at the wedding, and it’s an interesting concept. The Christian bible talks about marriage (Ephiesians 5, 22-33) and husbands and wives being subject to one another. It, like all areas of the bible, is massively open to interpretation and has been used to suggest husbands should command or even own their wives, despite it clearly saying that they should serve each other.

But what I actually think it is driving at is that in marriage you are making a new thing, a new team which you are both members of. And you are both saying, the team is more important than either of us.

Something you can decide without ever getting married.

Sometimes it’s the priest, sometimes it’s a speech, sometimes it’s the party, sometimes it’s despite all of these things, but sometimes you get the feeling that something is being created at that moment: a new team.

Fish in Latin

When I was 12, we went to the south of France for our summer holidays. It was an important holiday, or at the very least it was hugely memorable. It might have been the 25-hour journey caused by the French farmers’ blockades, which meant we had to travel through every country on the east of France just to get there. It might have been that this was the holiday that coincided with my learning to read voraciously. I read through every one of those countries and had to be forced to look out of the window at all the lovely countryside we were driving through. There was also the amazing library of books at the place we were staying in which kept me going all the way through the holiday. But there is a moment from that holiday that keeps coming back to me.

One day, Dad and I went to the market to get some food. There was a fish stall where Dad hoped to pick something nice for dinner. Now my father can speak English and Dutch and understand Russian, and he can “sort of” deal with French at a market. At the time, I was learning French at school and so when the fishmonger asked him a particularly difficult question, my father turned to me for help. Did I know the answer? And for that limited moment in time, I did know the answer to the question. The fishmonger was impressed. He asked which languages I was studying, only French? No I said, in French, I was also learning to speak Latin. “Speak Latin”, he was surprised at this, “I only heard of people reading and writing Latin. You must be very smart if you can speak it too.” I laughed and my father asked for a translation. The fishmonger, while I was explaining, got an extra bit of monkfish and wrapped it and gave it to me “to support this excellent brain”.

Unfortunately for me, my French has really suffered, I don’t know the French for Latin or brain anymore. Although when I try and use it I can just about get by. But now I have to pay for my own fish.

Looking up the undertaker

We were the first people we knew to get satellite television. There were a number of things that my brother and I were exposed to earlier than the other kids because of this: The Simpsons, ‘infotainment’ and what was called back then the Worldwide Wrestling Federation.

Because we were two brothers, we had to pick different favourites so when we watched we could root for opposing wrestlers and play out our sibling rivalries by proxy. My brother was first to wrestling so he, logically I suppose, decided to side with the good guys leaving me to go for the anti-heroes when I had the chance to pick. I believe my brother’s favourite was the Ultimate Warrior, which, as names go, is pretty much the Ronseal of wrestling. Or rather you hope it is if you are backing him. Imagine the scene down at the betting shop: “Which of these wrestlers shall I bet on, hmmm ‘Sad Henry’, ‘Weak Jim’ or ‘Tired Larry’, or I suppose I could go for the ‘Ultimate Warrior’. Yeah he sounds good”.

I ended up picking the Undertaker and this worked out quite well for me. In 1991, the storyline was that the Ultimate Warrior and the Undertaker were bitter rivals, so I assume that was what solidified it for me, but I have to admit that I was never a very assiduous supporter. I remember distinctly that after not having seen any wrestling for a while, I caught a match featuring the Undertaker in the mid ’90s which suddenly piqued my interest. After a few minutes, I realised something was wrong – it wasn’t the same man playing the Undertaker – wait what? I knew that WWF wrestling was staged, but I hadn’t thought they would just replace people. My understanding had been that what you were watching was a stage performance, but Hulk Hogan was always going to be Hulk Hogan.

That was when I officially stopped paying attention to wrestling. But I never can completely ignore one of my prior interests forever. Every so often the fact that the Undertaker was two people will float up to the surface of my mind and frustrate me, and I will inevitably have to look it up. And wikipedia always tells me that the bloke who played the Undertaker, Mark William Calaway, is the longest serving wrestler in WWF/WWE history, he’s still going at 50, and actually was taking a 7 month sabbatical to heal his back during the time I happened to watch it and see this other guy. And most importantly they weren’t trying to pretend that this other guy really was the undertaker. A character in the plot was, but nobody believed him, he was even referred to by some as the Underfaker. It was all about making a huge entrance when the real Undertaker came back.

So I have misremembered this fact for 20 years, and here’s the odd thing: I think I have looked up this information every couple of years during those 20 and I never remember the correct information. It just won’t stick in my mind. Maybe, finally, by writing this article I will remember it. But who knows?

Say that again

I was on the phone, cancelling my car insurance.

I was having a lovely conversation with a nice Welsh lad and it was all going well.

At the end of the call he said, “My name’s Dan, for your reference” and I replied, “Thanks very much, Dan for your reference”.

I just couldn’t help myself.

He said, “Oh I see what you’ve done there, very clever”.

I apologised and he said, “not to worry” and told me to have a nice day.

You’ve got to come up with some other story

Nina and I decided to make a improv puppet show

About half way through she runs out of ideas and asks what’s next, “You’ve got to come up with some other story” I say.

Story of my life.

The Origamist

Pathological liars are sometimes referred to as “folded”, emotionally “enveloped” by their imagined selves, and thus “origamists,” from the Japanese word for folded paper birds and animals.” – Provenance by Laney Salisbury & Aly Sujo

For a while I have been fascinated by the work of John Myatt, a painter who was infamously involved in one of the biggest art cons of modern times. Myatt is a gifted mimic of other artists and painted what he referred to as “genuine fakes”. Having fallen on hard times, he was recruited by a con man, John Drewe, to help pull off this enormous con selling hundreds (potentially more than a thousand) forgeries into the art market.

Drewe was such a pathological liar he seemed to have convinced himself that he was telling the truth about what the work was -that Myatt was merely a restorer of art and not its producer. Drewe constructed a world around the art, proving its history, proving that it had been exhibited and sold many times. And he managed to get his proofs into some rather important places. In some ways his creation was a work of art larger than Myatt’s.

I have recently read the excellent book, Provenance by Laney Salisbury & Aly Sujo, which attempts to explain how the con worked and how they were caught. It’s a brilliant read as it’s written as a classic thriller or police procedural. John Drewe’s character is truly unbelievable and repeatedly things happen which are so far fetched as to make you question if you are really reading a factual account of events. The story even features a police officer who is two weeks from retirement who just wants to put this one last case to bed! This story literally has everything. (For probably my Dad’s entertainment only, it even has a visit to a certain Polish restaurant – Daquise). I would certainly recommend it just for the entertainment value alone, I would love for it to be made into a movie (I’m thinking Coen Brothers).

But I was even more interested in the discussion on what makes art art. Were these pieces less good than the originals? When some of the collectors thought they were genuine they were described as “perhaps the greatest work” of the particular artist. When they were discovered as forgeries they we sometimes described as “obviously fake”.

There is a passage in the book about an earlier forger, Han Van Meegeren, who produced ten Vermeers. His works were only discovered because he sold one of them to Herman Göring and so after the war he was accused of collaboration. He revealed that it was a forgery because that was a lesser crime than collaboration and nobody believed him until he created an eleventh Vermeer in his cell.

After the truth was revealed, Van Meegeren wrote, “Yesterday, this picture was worth millions of guilders and experts and art lovers would come from all over the world and pay money to see it. Today, it is worth nothing, and nobody would cross the street to see it for free. But the picture has not changed. What has?”

It’s an intriguing question.

Tagged

Nice things happening to nice people

I was once asked, “so what do you write about”?
I thought about it for a while, and decided that I generally write about nice things happening to nice people. There are certainly variations, people change in stories, things hurt them, people have baggage, but generally I like triumph over adversity.

I’m going to pick a story that I wrote after my book was sent to the printers, but before it had been printed as an archetypal story of mine. It’s “nice”. I was told as a kid not to use the word “nice”. It was too common. But I like “nice”. I’m sorry.

So while I’m on this nostalgia kick, here’s my story written 5 years ago originally here in 4 parts (as so many of my stories are), but now collected together…

It’s called “Preparation”…

Last night I dreamt of mandarins again. I know I’m worrying about the meal. Why do I put myself through it? Twenty people for Christmas lunch. I used to think it was for the kids so they would grow up seeing their family. And lately I’ve convinced myself that I’m doing it for Bob. He always used to love Christmas. I wonder how many times I’ll have to say it before I can forget him making the kids put all of the presents back under the tree because they were being too noisy.

No, I might as well admit that I do it for me. We never had fun at Christmas when I was a girl and I suppose I’m making up for it. Sometimes I do wonder when this fun is supposed to happen. I mean before you’ve served up, you’re cooking like crazy. During the meal you’re worrying about pudding. During pudding you’re trying to stop Malcolm setting fire to the napkins or Uncle Paul from getting too carried away with the brandy butter. And afterwards there’s the washing up.

Paul isn’t my uncle he’s my brother. I wonder when I started calling him that as though it was his name or his title? I guess it was around the time I started talking to the kids more than I spoke to adults. Just when I thought I was about clear, I now seem to spend quite a bit of my time in the company of the grandchildren.

I do know the part of Christmas I love most. It’s not watching the kids unwrap the presents. There is too often disappointment in some of their faces. I knew we were spoiling them when they were little but I didn’t see what harm it would do. Now I know they expected bigger and better presents every year, so now probably anything less than the
keys to an actual rocket ship is a bit of a let down. So no it isn’t that. It’s sneaking about the night before helping Santa fill the stockings. See there I go again, I’ve clearly been spending too much time with the grandchildren.

Now. It’s time to get out of bed. I’ve got a busy day today. I’m having lunch with a man. God, that sounds more exciting than it probably will be.

I had Simon on the phone last night giving me dating tips. As if he knows anything about it. He’s never even had a girlfriend. Well I suppose he still dates even though he thinks he can’t tell me about it. Right, must get up.

***

I pull into the last car parking space and turn the engine off. The radio stops talking at me and suddenly everything is peaceful. Or at least everything outside my head. I try to collect my thoughts but it’s hard to focus. This was a stupid week to have a date. All of the time I’m thinking of all of the things I should be getting ready for Christmas. Simon was right, I do need to spend more time thinking about myself for a change, but I’m just not sure that this week was the best week to do it.

I tilt the rear view mirror towards me and take a look at my make up. I think about re-applying but out loud I say “it’ll have to do.” He’s picked the nice little bistro that opened recently. It’s a good choice to go somewhere new, there is less baggage – less chance that I had a previous date here. I walk in and can already tell that I’m going to like this place. There is a certain feel when you walk in, a certain light that feels warm and welcoming. I can see Brian over at a corner table. He looks up at me and smiles and I instantly remember why I’m here. That smile is a big part of it. He looks at me like he actually wants to see me. I’ve started to be able to tell the difference between that look and the one my children give me, the one where they want something from me.

As I get close to the table Brian stands to greet me. A single peck on the cheek, a slight waft of his aftershave. I give my coat to the waitress and sit. I can look at him now properly and I do. Then after a second I realise I’m almost staring and so I look down for the menu.

“Drink?” he asks.

“Yes, but I’m driving so it’ll just be the one.”

“You look lovely today.”

I’m never sure exactly what a comment like this is supposed to mean. I haven’t got time now – I’ll over-analyze it later.

“Thank you. And you’ve had your hair cut.”

“Not since you last saw me – I don’t think.”

“Ah, it must be the candlelight. You look very smart.”

“Thank you. Now how about that drink?”

I look at Brian. What do I think about him? How can I judge? He’s not quite the man I imagine when I close my eyes. But on the other hand I’m not sure that man exists. In fact I know that man doesn’t exist.

The man I see when I close my eyes is my dead husband without the inconvenient bits. Not just that he’s dead, actually him dying was one of the most self-improving things he could have done. God that sounds harsh, I don’t mean that the way you think I do. All I mean is that when he was alive I always had this lovely perfect vision of him, the feeling, the idea of him was perfect. And I have that again now. But then, when he was alive, he’d go and open his mouth or do something that would be so… so… disappointing that actually now he’s gone it’s a bit easier to preserve his perfection. The only problem for poor Brian is that now he has to live up to a completely impossible version of Bob. It seems weird because I know, and you know I know because I just wrote it, that Bob wasn’t actually like that in real life. But this is being written in the cold light of day (well I’m in bed, it’s warm and it’s night-time but that’s neither here nor there). But when I’m meeting with Brian it’s not about cold-light-of-day decisions. Somehow I’m measuring him against dead Bob and that’s not really fair. He’s all right, he’s lovely, but…

No. He’s fine. That sounds terrible. I want to say… He’s what I want, he’s what I need. That’s true actually. I need somebody who isn’t part of my family. I need somebody like that because I want to be thought of as special. I want to know that they are interested in me. I wonder how really rich people cope. I know that the only people who want me for something other than pure desire are my family who want me to provide. But if you were loaded you’d have to worry that any man would be after you just for your money. Brian’s richer than me though so I don’t have to worry about that. Why am I even thinking about it? I do find myself just whittering on sometimes.

We’ve been eating in silence. Brian decides to break it.

“So,” he asks, “what have you been thinking about?”

“You,” I say.

“What have you got to think about me?”

“Well, I’ve been evaluating you. Sort of deciding.”

“I hope…” he pauses, “I hope you don’t decide to decide too early. I’ve got a lot of interesting things to try… to show you if you’d be interested.”

“Don’t worry Brian. I was… I was just having some difficulty. I mean, I’m not used to this kind of thing.”

“What kind of thing?”

“Well a date?”

“Good!”

“Good?”

“Sorry,” says Brain smirking, “it’s just that… God this is going to sound stupid. But I’ve been out with some women recen…. In the past… and none of them… not a one… has realised that they’ve been on a date. They think they are on some kind of bridge meeting. They compliment me on the choice of food, on the choice of wine, but some of them even bring a friend. They have no idea. At least you know that you’re on a date.”

“How many women?”

***

The question, “how many women?” I’d asked was hanging over the proceedings like a bad stink. Brian had frozen, he’d been freed for a second into saying something that he clearly truly felt. Something actually fucking interesting. Sorry about my language – but that’s what I feel. My contemporaries act as though it’s proper decorum to pretend you died about five years ago.

“Sorry Brian, I didn’t mean that question the way that you’re thinking that I did.”
“What does that mean?”
“I just meant…” I pause, I’m trying to decide how to phrase it. “I just meant, huh.”
“I’m sorry if I offended you.”
“Oh no, God no… I just was just thinking that I wanted to pause the date, because… While I realise I’m on a date and I’m therefore supposed to disapprove of you going out with others, I’m old enough and wise enough to realise that you must be, and that I’m not the only one. I’m not moronic. There are a lot more single women of my age than men. But what you were saying just made me feel like one of the blokes down the pub for a second. I imagined all of the twittery women I know who are so totally clueless. And for a second I just wanted to laugh at them with you. That’s all.”
“Well that’s okay then.”

Brian, I could tell, was looking at me differently. I wonder what that meant. And then suddenly I didn’t know what to do. Could I go on eating, or did I need to talk? I knew I was really waiting for him to talk again but I didn’t know where to look or what to do while I was waiting. I decided to plump for a overly large glug of my wine so I could keep looking him in the eye. He looked flustered, I was flustered too I could feel the tops of my ears starting to go red. And then I decided to help him.

“You know what Bri, lets order us up some more wine – I’ll get a taxi home.”

“Good,” he smiled that smile again. And he actually exhaled. It was so sweet. I wanted to hug him right there and then.

I smiled back at him and suddenly we were a team. We were on the same side against the rest, whoever they might be.

***

As the taxi pulled away from the bistro I thought about how I sometimes can really surprise myself. I used to think about how I was too eager to please others. It used to worry me. Over time I realised that pleasing others pleased me, and that in many ways that’s all there was to life.

Today I realised, finally, that all encounters, all conversations, are a two way street. You wouldn’t drink neat gin, you wouldn’t drink neat tonic but together they make something beautiful. They come together to create something better than either of them can be by themselves. I wanted to be nice to Brian, I suddenly realised, not because it wouldn’t help me but because it would. That’s what we’re all doing.

It’s only a problem when you stop taking part yourself. When it stops making you feel better to take part in the exchange – that’s the only time it’s a problem God! Stop thinking! And you think this sounds like crazy over-analysis? You should hear my brain in an hour.

I’m in this taxi, it’s going to my house. My house with my family in it. My family who are there for Christmas. Who are there to enjoy themselves.

.
.
.
.
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And I’m bringing Brian to have dinner with me. How’s that for making myself feel happy?

Me

Here was me, back in the day before I had a blog

sidealex

And here is me now…

image (2)

I’ve hardly changed!

Standing in a garden in rome

John and Katie are standing in a garden in Rome. They are standing in a part of the garden that, for some reason, has been covered with corrugated plastic. It has paths that would be fun to run along, but they can’t do that because they are pretending to be sophisticated. Shortly John will run briefly, ironically, along the path, looking square at Katie so she knows not to judge him.

But she will judge. Not him, he’s enjoying himself, maybe not enough, but there’s something there. He’s being free. What the hell is she doing? She can’t just run down the winding paths.

Some pigeons are walking on the top of the plastic corrugated roof. The racket is deafening. PECK PECK PECK.

SCRAPED FOOT, SCRAPED FOOT, PECK, SCR… PECK, PECK, PECK, SCRAPED FOOT.

“It sounds like it’s raining,” John says.
“Bloody pigeons,” Katie says, “must have followed us here all the way from London”.
“Must have taken the plane,” says John.
“Yeah,” Katie says, “do you think they flew business class?”
“Would they fly do you reckon?”
“What,” Katie asks, looking at him with a grin on her face, “rather than taking the boat?”
“Well,” says John, “I meant, regardless of what transport method they were ostensibly taking, I wondered if they would fly around on a plane? Or a boat?”
“If that floats your boat”.
“Indeed, but what would it be like for a pigeon flying around on a plane?”
“Yeah,” Katie says, “‘No I don’t want any bloody hot towels, I’m about to get the land speed record.'”
“Well it wouldn’t be the land speed record.”
“‘Well, no, the air speed record, that’s what I’m about to get’, he’d say, ‘and bloody get out of my way with the sky mall magazine, I don’t have time for that rubbish'”
“‘There is a very handy GPS device listed here’, ‘a GPS device? I’m a homing pigeon, what on earth would I do with a GPS? Use it as a paperweight?'”
“Yeah,” Katie says, “They wouldn’t be fans of distraction like that up there.”

The conversation drops and John does his run down the path. Katie thinks about sighing, but doesn’t want to discourage him. They are having a nice time. Imagine when we are grown up, Katie thinks, it will all be different, we’ll have kids and stuff, and we’ll do important grown up things. Important boring things.

John thinks about saying something, but doesn’t. It’s a nice day, he thinks, why ruin it by talking about stuff?

Katie suddenly says, “I’m not sure what the point of growing up is? I mean, yes, having kids, I suppose you need to raise them”.
“Well they need to learn to eat I suppose”.
“But what’s the point in growing up? What’s the point in choosing to be serious and not laughing each day?”
“Well I guess you have to eventually?”
“Do you?” Katie asks, she looks at him.
“Well maybe not, actually I think you’re right. Although, maybe real growing up is not being worried about being serious all the time?”
“So you think those codgers are doing it wrong?”
“Yup.”
“Me too. Although there are some cool codgers you know?”
“Oh yeah, that’s us! The light and soul of the retirement home.”
“Yeah, I guess, but maybe we need to grow up a bit?”
“I guess, I guess, but we have time for that don’t we. Or is it annoying that we haven’t?” John asks.
“I don’t know, I feel like we might be missing something, but everyone who has grown up that I know hates themselves.”
“Well that sounds like a good reason to avoid it.”
“Yeah,” Katie looks at him, “but maybe we could be a bit more grown up sometimes, maybe a bit more… well…”
“Yeah.”

Katie wonders whether that’s an actual “Yeah”, or even if they are acknowledging the same thing? The conversation drops for a bit.

“Those pigeons,” John says, “they really are incredibly loud aren’t they?”