Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halloween?? Bah, humbug!

I asked a friend if she knew of any parties going on tonight, but she replied, "Oh, I don't like Halloween!"

"Me neither!" I said. "Suddenly EVERYONE's a serial killer!"

She's been avoiding me ever since.

My 'jokes' so often get me into trouble.

There ought to be a word for this too

I've just put up a couple of posts about my 'Exes'; but some of the women who have had the most significant impact on my life, I never actually went out with at all. (Note: I've never felt comfortable with the American term 'dating', which seems to be an unfortunate combination of the very formal and yet, at times, also disturbingly provisional: "Oh, we're only dating", "Yeah, I'm dating other people as well". Don't get me started! This could be a long post, or even a series of posts, all on its own.)

There should be a word for women you've loved, but never gone out with. I suppose the standard word would be 'unrequited'; but, to me, that tends to suggest one-sided infatuation, secret admiration-from-afar. The women I'm thinking of here were, mostly, quite well aware of my interest in them, and not entirely unreceptive to it, but... for various unfortunate reasons ("Cruel Fate, why do you mock me?"), we were never able to consummate things.

Indeed, there ought to be a word for it! Any suggestions?

Seasonally affected, disordered

There is a something spooky about this time of year - apart from the onset of the crappy weather and the dwindling of the daylight that brings with it protracted bleak moods - that has only just occurred to me. I always seem to get smitten at this time of year - end of October, beginning of November. Three years ago it was the English Rose (nickname self-explanatory); two years ago, The Buddhist (an American grad student over here for a year studying Asian languages); last year, The Poet (The Ex-Before-Last?!); this year, The Artist (a statuesque British visitor who has sashayed through my life wreaking romantic devastation for the last few weeks).

You've got to wonder if there isn't some sort of annual cycle at work here, related to the temperature or the hours of daylight. Perhaps there is a deep-seated genetic impulse to seek warmth and companionship during the long winter months??

Then again, perhaps not. I can't recall this being a romantically significant time of year for me before I came to this place (The Unnameable Country).

It is rather dispiriting, alarming to reflect that none of the above-mentioned has been a real relationship. The Rose (whom I had actually met, and been smitten with, several months earlier, which puts a dent in the theory for a start; although she left the country again shortly after those few early encounters, and we didn't start seeing a lot of each other until she suddenly showed up again in October) exploited me as a useful helpmate, but (aside from occasional random interludes of extravagant but seemingly non-earnest flirtiness) appeared to regard the idea of a romantic involvement with me with a wariness that bordered on, and sometimes crossed over into, outright hostility. My time with The Buddhist was very pleasant and cosy, but hardly a grand passion; and, since we both knew from the outset that it was strictly time-limited, it was really no more than an extended holiday romance. The Poet - ah, The Poet was probably the great love of my life, or one of them; but it was amour fou, and it was over in an instant!

And The Artist... well, we'll see. Neither of us wanted to get too involved, knowing that she was so soon about to return to London, but... she is hoping to be able to come back here before too long. Not for me, but to create some work here - although I hope that the idea of seeing me again and developing our relationship might be a pleasant 'bonus'.

An indefinite period of anxious waiting looms for me - just what I need at this gloomy time of year!

Hex The Ex!

It has been bothering me that it is perhaps inappropriate - unhelpful to my emotional health - to keep referring to my worryingly Sylvia Plath-like former girlfriend (witch, bitch, muse, mentor, siren, unsuitable soulmate) as The Ex. After all, I have quite a few other 'Exes'; and I may soon be about to acquire another.

I also feel that a re-naming might be symbolic 'moving on'; perhaps a useful proofing against the dangers of a bad run of 'anniversary blues' (the next 6 weeks are a minefield of landmark moments in our brief, intense, wonderful, disastrous 'relationship': first meeting, first date, first poem, first kiss; first week-long 'disappearance', first evidence of mental instability, first argument, first admission of 'the other man'...). Therefore, I propose to try to refer to her as The Poet from now on.

Old readers may be briefly confused. New readers will be no more confused than they otherwise would have been. Deal with it!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Happy, Happy People

According to this funky artwork I saw a few months back, these grinning red people are so egregiously happy because they're SUCCESSFUL... and they're SUCCESSFUL because they're HERE!! (Wherever that is! I'm still being coy about it.)

I rarely feel quite such delirious satisfaction about my location as these chaps, but... most modern art here is suffused with irony, so they might not be quite so happy as they seem.

You don't get rid of me that easily

Ta-daaaa! I'm back!! It is as though I never went away.

Either those pesky bureaucrats at Kafka Central rethought their policy on blocking posts to Blogspot over the weekend…. or their blocking apparatus has failed (or been thwarted by Blogger? Go, Blogger!!!)…. or my problems with that were just a temporary glitch after all.

Whatever the cause of the maddening interruption (and probably we shall never know), I am now re-connected, and thus able to share my brain-scrapings with you whenever the mood so takes me. (Unless you happen to be living in the same country as me, or in one with a similarly f***ed-up censorship regime; in which case, you need to learn how to use Anonymouse, my friend.)

I am half-tempted to make more of an effort to deserve the interference of the government by including more social and political commentary (the powers-that-be would certainly not like Froogville's 'Where in the world am I?' series, if they knew). This is the common error of tyrants down the ages: random, unnecessary oppression creates rebels out of complacent gripers.

I wonder if 'someone' is 'looking over my shoulder' at this….?

"I saw him standing by the newspaper stand. There's something odd about his gloved left hand…"

Saturday, October 28, 2006

'Normal' Service will be resumed....?

This could be a 'Where in the world am I?', but I think I'll probably post it on both my blogs.

I live in a country where Internet access is fraught with difficulty and frustration. Partly it's the common problem of a developing country racing to catch up with those glamorous industrialized nations…and sometimes rushing at things a bit too fast. The nationwide Internet architecture is still a bit primitive and unreliable in some respects. Though major cities now all have access to a pretty sophisticated high-speed broadband network, in practice it doesn't work that well because much of the equipment isn't as cutting-edge as the new routers and cabling. There is, in particular, a problem in the last link in the chain: only a handful of the most-recently constructed buildings are actually wired for broadband; the rest of us have to hook up via ancient telephone lines. My connection is rated at a very decent 100Mbps, but in practice, I doubt if it is one-tenth as fast as that most of the time.

Of course, it also doesn't help that I live in a country where the government is virulently opposed to the free flow of information, and thus we have one of the most heavily monitored and filtered Internet systems in the world – which slows things down even further (sometimes to a complete stop: the Google search engine became completely unusable for a few weeks back in May and June this year [and – incomprehensibly! – so did GoogleMail]), and leads to all kinds of (fortunately, mostly ephemeral) weirdnesses.

At first, I was tempted to put down the sudden disappearance of Blogspot to such an annoying but temporary glitch. However, after 24hrs, I now rather fear the worst: it's blocked (AGAIN). Curiously enough, the Blogger site isn't. Not so far, anyway. Yesterday, I was still able to post – although I could only view the results via an anonymizer. The interfering Net goons seem to have closed that rather obvious loophole now. Blogger is still fine, but I'm not allowed to publish to Blogspot. (Since I can, it appears, still edit and save posts to the Blogger site, I may have to call on one of my friends overseas to become my 'literary executor' and log in to my account to publish for me a couple of times a week. Until 'they' close that avenue too….)

I am not greatly familiar with the dark arts of circumventing Net censorship using anonymizer sites and such, but I may have to start trying to get more savvy. Anonymouse is becoming my lifeline at the moment – but even that is extensively interfered with! I had thought that I had managed to log in to Blogger using this site in the past (I had originally been planning to try to do all my posting anonymously, to avoid possible 'trouble'… but then decided I couldn't be bothered.); but perhaps I was mistaken. Now I am unable to log in anywhere using a password through Anonymouse. Has that always been a limitation of the system, or is it new? Or is this further evidence of the sinister work of the goons?

Does anyone know of an anonymizer (or other canny method) that might enable me to log in to Blogger "anonymously" and publish to Blogspot without being blocked?

Anyway, one way or another, I hope to be able to resume posting shortly. Please be patient.

I had anticipated this exasperating development right back when I started this blogging lark a couple of months ago, but I have found it a surprisingly bitter blow – I was just starting to enjoy myself!! Damn it!!!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Friday again

The end of the week has come galloping around again... so it must be time for one of those little Japanesey things!

Having had a few fairly untraditional ones in recent weeks, I thought I would this time try to demonstrate my reverence for the original spirit of the haiku. This is one of my first, and I call it 'Warrior's Grave'. It is actually a translation of a famous Japanese original - although I have, to my shame, forgotten the author, and cannot locate him on the Net. (I hasten to point out that my knowledge of Japanese is limited to seppuku and teppanyaki; this was written with reference to a previous translation - by Arthur Waley, I suspect - and in consultation with a Japanese acquaintance.)

Visiting the site of a famous ancient battle - where numerous samurai had sacrificed themselves nobly, but probably needlessly - the poet was saddened to discover only a desolate hillside, with no kind of memorial to the brave men who had fought and died there; and yet he felt the place still alive with resonances of them. So he wrote:

Wind-torn, scattered blades
Of grass: only dream-remnants
Of the Mighty Ones.

It is, I'm sure, much better in the original.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

My first review

One of my penpals has complimented me that she finds the blogs "very entertaining" and "at times painfully frank". The second remark was also tendered as something positive!

Well, it is much better than "frankly painful", I suppose.

Other verdicts passed on me which I have cherished over the years (perhaps inappropriately?) include:

"You can be too forthright for your own good." Yes, guilty as charged, but unrepentant!

"You're too conciliatory!" My argumentative previous ex, The Evil One, often complained that I wouldn't give her a good scrap (an unfair charge, I think: I don't always sidestep conflict, I just choose my moment prudently. In general, though, not a bad thing to say about someone, surely?).

"You are so laidback as to be almost horizontal." This was intended as a criticism (in a performance review by the adjutant of the army reserve unit I trained with while at University), but I took it as quite the reverse. Most people respond to stress by getting in a flap; I tend to respond by getting very calm and focused. Army types, alas, tend not to be very observant or appreciative of this valuable attribute.

"You were so relaxed, we assumed you didn't really want the job." And perhaps they were right. This might have been the assessment from just about any one of the dozens (hundreds?) of job interviews I have 'failed' in my life. This one, in fact, came from one of my very first, for a teaching job at a grammar school in north London. There was a self-important functionary from the local Education Authority on the interview panel who had appointed himself to the 'bad cop' role and was asking all kinds of needling - or just pointless - questions. I allowed myself to get mildly irritated by the obscurity of his enquiry "If I came into your classroom, what would I see?", so I replied flippantly: "Oh, I don't know - the usual. Desks, chairs, books, chalk, pupils, me. No riot, hopefully. Some learning, probably. What exactly do you want to know?"

Yes, yes, I am my own worst enemy sometimes.... but better the devil you know....

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Sporadic advance of relevance

My recent attempts to grapple with some of the impenetrable scientific English wrought by non-native speakers has reminded me of an old, old favourite in this genre.

A friend of mine at University - let's call him The Botanist - enjoyed an even more chequered academic career than me, constantly flirting with expulsion, but always somehow just managing to hang on. He had soon grown jaded with his initial subject choice of biochemistry, and, after dipping his toes in the waters of a number of other possible options, he eventually drifted somewhat haphazardly into botany. He took even longer over his degree than me.... and I'm not sure that he ever quite finished....

He was a voracious reader and collector of books (even more so than me). And a year or two after we'd finally moved on from University, he found himself without a substantial roof over his head for a while, and asked to lodge his very considerable library with me (mostly abstruse titles dating from his fleeting periods of interest in biochemistry, politics, history, and who knows what else... but principally botany ['The Evolution of the Banana' has always been one of my favourite titles!]).

This weighty addition to my own not-insignificant library was often of assistance to me in intimidating wayward pupils (this was during my brief spell as a schoolmaster); I would summon them to my study for a dressing-down, and then leave them to stew on their own for a few minutes... contemplating the thousand-plus unfathomable titles which covered almost the entire end-wall of the room. Almost invariably they would try to begin their interview with me by asking the awed question: "Sir, have you read all these books?" "Yes!" I'd lie shamelessly... and they'd be putty in my hands after that. But I digress.

The most outlandishly titled and outlandishly written of all of these botany books (I may not have read them all, but I did at least skim through most of them at some point - the ones with the more obviously interesting or amusing titles, anyway) was 'An Introduction to the Taxonomy of Angiosperms' - the life's work of a couple of worthy Indian scholars. However, although the content of the book was no doubt meticulously compiled, the English did leave something to be desired (in particular, definite and indefinite articles were almost invariably confused, if not omitted altogether - a common failing among many Asian English speakers). Eventually, The Botanist reclaimed all of these bizarre books; but the one-page introduction to 'Taxonomy of Angiosperms' had become such a joy to me, such a treasure-chest of unintentional hilarity, that I kept a photocopy of it for many years (but it is now lost; and I cannot find the passage online, so it may be gone for good..... I will just have to rely on memory). I especially cherished the closing lines, something like: "There is need of constant update to keep apace with sporadic advance of relevance."

The "sporadic advance of relevance" seems to describe the progress of my life, the progress of this blog rather aptly. It could well become the title of my autobiography if I ever get around to writing one.

Monday, October 23, 2006

A Dark Fable

One of the most infuriating things about The Ex (one of the many infuriating things about her... maybe I should call her The Vex?) is her complete refusal or inability to discuss her feelings. The only explanation she ever offered for her abrupt breaking up with me (not so much an 'explanation' as a declaration that the matter was not open for discussion, ever) was the cryptic claim, "I know my own heart." Rarely in human history can anyone ever have said something more palpably untrue. I'm not sure that any of us really understands our heart that well - but she least of all!

Anyway, these reflections did give rise to the following little frippery (something that I felt, or I hoped, was perhaps a little in the style of the Mersey Poets):

The Heart Inspection

"Your hearts have been removed
For a routine inspection.
Do not be alarmed: it is perfectly safe.
You can live for many years
Without your heart;
And this is a sterile environment.
After grading and certification,
Your hearts will be returned to you.
Please go to the Collection Room on the ground floor
This afternoon to recover your hearts

This is where the problem starts:
We thought we would know our own hearts
When we saw them bare, on a steel table;
Would recognise the faults and fears that move us;
Would see – this one swollen by pride,
That one withered from disuse;
This one sooted with cigarettes,
That one scarred by disappointments.

But no – all the hearts look the same:
Each opaque, unknowable;
Their histories hidden even from their owners
(From their owners most of all).

There is a brief surge of panic
In the Collection Room – but then we realise:
One heart is as good as another.
We each take whichever comes to hand.

Still, there is a scramble.
Somehow there are not enough to go round:
The young girl beside me is left without a heart.

Sensing she is about to cry,
I offer her mine.

Weird Science

I spent most of yesterday finally doing my 'homework' from last week's scientific editing course - a brain-crushing undertaking.

I had to try to render intelligible a horribly garbled, rambling, and insubstantial study on fish. Someone, it seems (and - terrifyingly - I'm sure this test piece was adapted from an actual research paper), had been trying to monitor changes in the physiological condition of fish over time by attaching a tiny data logger to their backs to record their ECG. Someone with a very imperfect grasp of English and a decidedly shaky concept of scientific method (I suspect a Japanese - they do a lot of work on fish!). The chief change noted was that, after a week or so, the fish died - as a result of attaching the data logger to them. Not that the sample was all that compelling. They only tried it on half a dozen fish, only managed to recover two of them, and seemingly only had usable results from one (and there was some doubt even about that, because they'd wired the data logger up wrongly, and so the ECG trace came out 'reversed').

I was tempted to begin my editor's letter to the author 'Dear Fish-Murderer'.... but I restrained myself.

I am, however, deeply pessimistic about whether this kind of work is ever going to be a useful revenue stream for me. It is mind-buggeringly difficult, and far too time-consuming for the pay rates on offer. Maybe it will get easier in time.....

Or maybe I will just go mad!

Maybe that's already happened....

Friday, October 20, 2006

Where in the world am I? (9)

I live in a country where the banks do not talk to each other.

It is not completely impossible to transfer money between one bank and another, but the mechanisms for doing so are so obscure and complicated and unreliable that, in practice, everybody treats it as impossible.

I just blew out a would-be employer because they insisted it was going to be "impossible" to arrange payment into my own bank account (or via the almost ubiquitous cash-stuffed-envelope-discreetly-slipped-into-backpocket method, which I always rather enjoy). "Now, let me see. I could set up an account with your bank, the XYY Bank, which only has a handful of branches, the nearest of which is at least 3 or 4 miles away from where I live. And then I could remember to go and visit this bank every month to withdraw all of the money you're paying me, and go and deposit that money in my bank - the ABC Bank, which has branches all over town, including one very close by my apartment. Or, you could pull your finger out of your a***, and work out a more convenient way of paying me!"

That, I suppose, is the real keynote of this crazy country in which I find myself: nobody seems to have any concept of trying to make things easier for each other. Inconvenience is a way of life; hell, it's an obsession, a fetish, it's practically the national religion.

Am I extra-grouchy just because I am another year older today?? Perhaps. But I never believe in giving in to the inefficiency and irrationality I am assailed with in this country. My motto of the week is: "I could be flexible - but then I'd be denying you that pleasure."

PS The one possible advantage (for the unscrupulous) of this ludicrous compartmentalization of the banking system is that there is no effective credit-rating system here. Writing fraudulent loan applications is a national hobby. The vaunted economic miracle is built on a teetering pinnacle of bad debt.

And one day, the whole shebang is going to come crashing down around our ears. These are interesting times to live through. Terrifying, but interesting.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Morbid - moi?

Oscar Wilde used to wear black on his birthday, to mourn "the loss of another year of my youth". (Or was it "the loss of another of my youths this year"? No, I think the former.)

I know how he felt.

A lady friend was indelicate enough to ask me yesterday how old I was going to be. I chided her: "A man shouldn't ask; a woman doesn't tell! A woman shouldn't ask; a man LIES!"

It also put me in mind of the celebrated anecdote about the journalist who had scored a major interview with retired screen idol Cary Grant (then living in the South of France, I believe), but forgot to ascertain the great man's age during their conversation, and tried to rectify the omission afterwards by sending him a telegram with the question,"HOW OLD CARY GRANT?"

He received the reply,"OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?"

Anyway, I am a little glum about my birthday today. These days, the years seem to be not so much advancing... as charging at me headlong with bayonets fixed.


A rueful smile meets
Milestones on the road to death:
Unwelcome birthdays.

Where in the world am I? (8)

I am in a country where people forget to tell you things. All the time. Especially important things.

In fact, I think it is probably fair to say that there is a consistent formula at work here: the probability of people remembering to tell you something is inversely proportional to its importance.

Hence, it is impossible for your shoelace to come even slightly undone for more than a few seconds without having half a dozen people pursue you down the street trying to call it to your attention. (Maybe there's a local law against flapping shoelaces that I'm not familiar with? That might undermine my hypothesis rather....)

On the other hand, something like the start date for a new series of business English seminars would, you'd think, be worth mentioning. Well, OK, it has been mentioned several times, with varying degrees of vagueness and inconsistency: it was going to be "the beginning of September", and then "not till next year", and then "early October", and then "not this week after all, but maybe next". No-one ever actually said it was TODAY; not until an hour after it was supposed to have started.

And this from one of my most regular employers, the one school that I have previously admired for being comparatively competent and reliable. I had hoped for better from them; but I assure you that this is no freakish aberration: such monstrous oversights are absolutely routine, inevitable, ubiquitous here, both in state Universities and private training schools.

It's one of those things that you think you'll get used to in time; you know it's going to happen; you steel yourself for it..... and yet, every time, IT DOES YOUR HEAD IN!!!

A Better Tomorrow

The title of this post was, of course, a cheesily amusing '80s Hong Kong action flick, a breakthrough hit for Chow Yun-Fat (yes, another sly pitch for some search engine recognition!). It spawned a couple of even cheesier sequels - the minor inconvenience of the death of Chow's character in the first one being circumvented by the invention of a previously unmentioned identical twin brother.

I quote it merely as a pretext for introducing yet another of the many tomorrow-themed poems I have produced of late.

Possible Tomorrow

The possible tomorrows
Are too many to imagine;
But of all the ones I picture,
I like this one best:
I phone you
And you're in
And you answer
And, recognising me, you smile;
And, hearing the smile in your voice,
I smile too –
But silently, secretly.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Procrastination of the Early Morning Runner

I like running, I really do. It has become a central part of my life over the last few years, after being a regular-ish habit ever since I was a student. I find it a useful and necessary spring-cleaning of the brain, clearing out the worthless bric-a-brac. If bad weather or injury force me to go without for a few weeks, I start getting dangerously crazy, uptight, overwound.

And yet, and yet...... there are some days when the enthusiasm just isn't there. I've got an irksome Achilles-tweak I should probably rest for a few more days; it's cold and foggy this morning; the air pollution has been especially high lately; my new shoes don't feel right, and are probably exacerbating the injury; I don't really have time to warm down and recover before I have to go to work; and so on.

I am supposed to be running a marathon in six weeks' time - but I am slow and overweight, and haven't attempted much more than the half-distance in the last four months. It's not looking good.

I have to get out there and RUN.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

Another of the (several) whimsical little variations I created on The Ex's "tomorrow's not a house" line:

Tomorrow is not a house
Where you can settle,
Build a life.

Tomorrow is a cheap hotel:
A stopping-off point
On the way to somewhere else.

Adverbs, and other enemies

One of the new bow-strings I am investigating - in my continual quest to ward off starvation - is scientific editing: helping to write up technical papers for publication in learned journals. To that end, I've just been on a three-day training seminar run by a company that specializes in this field. Although I have a better grounding in grammar than most people (the first - and least marketable - of my many academic qualifications was in Latin!), 20hrs of being slapped around the head with 'the parts of speech' is enough for any man.

I was reminded that The Ex once confided to me that she had a particular horror of adverbs. However, like acrophobics exorcising their demons by abseiling off a tall building (something I myself have done - it's not exactly that I don't like high places; but I really don't like the idea of falling off them....), she once set herself to write a doggerel poem in which each line or verselet would hinge on an adverb. I took on the same challenge (stealing a first line from another of the poem-fragments that she had sent me), but departed from the original formula in the coda. I felt it chimed particularly well with the restless (sometimes self-tormenting) dissatisfaction I so often see in her. It's a small silly thing, but I like it. (Hers was probably better.)


Tomorrow's not a house
You can enter

Tomorrow's not a room
You can decorate

Tomorrow's not a bed
Where you can await a lover

Tomorrow's not a pillow
You can lay your head on

Is a house locked against you,
A room in disarray,
A bed that will always be empty,
A cold rock under your head.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Unleash those comments!!!

One of the many vexing glitches about the Blogger interface is its repeated lapsing into default settings on things like allowing comments.

A few of my friends have complained at being required to go through the rigmarole of registering on Blogger themselves before they would be able to add comments to my blogs.

I think this is now, finally, fixed (at about the fifth or sixth attempt): you should be able to comment away quickly and easily (and anonymously, if you like), without having to register or sign-in first.

So, go ahead and do your worst!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Where in the world am I? (7)

I live in a country where it is perfectly normal for people to leave piles of building materials obstructing a side-road or a gateway or other access point.

Today, I encountered a broad sidewalk completely blocked off by several piles of loose bricks laid across it.

Now, in general, sidewalks in this country are impossible to traverse for numerous other reasons (the impassability of sidewalks - and what people use them for instead of passing to and fro - could form the subject of several posts in itself), but this was an uncommonly wide and uncluttered one - until I came upon this impromptu wall created by a gang of inconsiderate builders.

[And several of my pedantic British friends will whinge mightily at my adoption of the US term 'sidewalk' here; but I am sufficiently 'Mid-Atlantic' now to embrace certain Americanisms without shame. The meaning of 'sidewalk' is self-evident, and it is therefore universally understood; 'pavement' can mean other things besides the pedestrian walkway at the side of the road, and thus often causes confusion to non-Brits. Quibble, if you will.... My aim is clarity and inclusiveness, rather than a dogmatic adherence to "the Queen's English".]

A literary coincidence

The Ex just quoted me some lines of poetry by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa - including this one I particularly liked: "In every corner of myself I erect an altar to a different god."

I would love to be able to quote that in the original language, but I am afraid it is beyond my resources to locate it....

It just so happens that my very good friend The Arts Entrepreneur is also a huge fan of Pessoa - indeed, he once wrote a short play based on his writings, called 'Only As Multiple' (Pessoa was a deeply eccentric talent, a sort of literary schizophrenic: he wrote under scores of pseudonyms, each one of them a distinct and detailed persona, often with a complete 'biography' created to support it).

This is not perhaps such a strange coincidence, since I tend to be attracted to fellow enthusiasts for literature; and these are probably the two best-read and most creative of all of my friends, the two finest writers I know. However, Pessoa is a relatively obscure figure, I think; not much known outside of his own country.

The Ex and The Entrepreneur are - in their very different, but both slightly crazy, ways - the two people with whom I feel the greatest affinity among all my friends, are probably the two people that I love best in this world. It did briefly give me goosebumps to reflect that they are also the only two people ever to have quoted Pessoa to me.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

When Beta is worse

The boys at Yahoo have done it again!

After I've spent two-and-a-half years building up a rather fine Yahoo Photos Page, the bastards have decided to impose another 'upgrade' on the site, which - for the moment, at least - has resulted in it becoming completely unusable.

And the one brief glimpse I was allowed of the 'new look' was dismal - an unnecessary new home menu page with nothing on it (rather than the full array of albums with 'cover photos' displayed, which we had with the old template); and then an ugly plain white 'My Albums' page with the cover photos displaying in a really shitty resolution and distorted.

That's all I got yesterday - none of the individual albums were accessible. Today, even the front page isn't downloading properly. Oiveh!

I've always thought FlickR looks a bit crap too...... but I may have to transfer my allegiances unless Yahoo pulls its finger out of its arse pronto.

I'm getting terminally pissed off with Yahoo Mail as well (perhaps that's in the throes of a pointless 'upgrade' too? That's usually why the functionality takes a nosedive for a month or two.....): the "none of the buttons in the 'read e-mail window' works" glitch I complained of a few weeks back has returned, and renders the service pretty well useless.

Now, if I were running an IT company, my approach to upgrading would be:

1) Don't change the look & feel of the interface more than you have to, or at all.

2) Add extra features, without changing or deleting existing features which users have become familiar with and attached to.

3) Concentrate on making things faster, rather than adding lots of fancy new features which most people are probably never going to use.

4) If you're going to change things a lot (particularly on a website), don't do it all at once; let people get used to your innovations in bite-size instalments.

5) Try to avoid interrupting or impairing your existing service for weeks or months at a time while the 'upgrade' is being implemented.

6) Above all (Yahoo, are you listening??), try not to make the appearance and functionality of your website or application palpably WORSE!!!

Friday, October 13, 2006

HEEEEERE'S the haiku!!!

From experience
We slowly learn how to make
All the same mistakes

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Where in the world am I? (6)

I live in a country where there are no telephone bills.

It's a kind of 'honour system' - once a month you are expected to remember that your account is due, and pop along to the bank or post office to pay it.

I, of course, frequently forget. It doesn't help that there seems to be no standard deadline for final payment, or for subsequent disconnection - I've been cut off on the 22nd of the due month and on the 12th of the following month, and on most days in between.

It's a curious system, to be sure.

Show 'em who's boss!

Today's literary nugget - cynical advice on handling the workforce from a little-known early 18th Century English poet, Aaron Hill. To some, it might seem like a method for handling women too ("Treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen."). For me, it has always seemed most appropriate to wrangling a class of unruly students. That's the beauty of a good metaphor: its applicability can spin off in all sorts of directions.

Written on a Window

Tender-handed stroke a nettle
And it stings you for your pains;
Grasp it, like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.

'Tis the same with common natures:
Use them kindly, they rebel;
But be rough as nutmeg-graters
And the rogues obey you well.

Aaron Hill (1685-1750)

The epitaph for me!

I once observed to my former Great Lost Love (the formidable Australian bluestocking I mentioned in 'The people I fall for...') that I was often accused of being "too clever for my own good".

She responded, very shrewdly:
"No - your trouble is that you are too good to take advantage of your cleverness."

This, I think, should be on my gravestone.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Bon mot of the day

I was reading John Banville's novel 'The Book of Evidence' while travelling this summer, and particularly enjoyed this line. I shared it at the time with several friends via e-mail or SMS, but it bears repeating......

"Pity is merely the acceptable form of an urge to give weak things a good, hard slap."

Banville, I suspect, will win the Nobel Prize one day; but he is, for me, a writer to be admired more than enjoyed. (One of the blurbs on the jacket of this novel said, "Banville must get tired of being told how well he writes." NO! No-one ever gets tired of hearing that.) His work is wonderfully dense, like an extended prose poem - but rather lacking in story. In the words of a Canadian friend of mine: "All syrup, and no pancakes!" And the relentless accumulation of metaphors - however brilliant some of them undoubtedly are - becomes irksome in itself: I find my attention being caught more by the few that somehow just don't work, than by the many that do.

Ah, but what wouldn't I give to be able to wield language like that!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


I once met Brian Patten (one of the 'Mersey Poets', a group of young writers who emerged from the folk and skiffle scene in Liverpool in the early '60s, after the Beatles had made the city suddenly fashionable); not quite a 'hero' of mine, but certainly an interesting writer - and a very cool dude.

He came to give a reading of his latest book at the school where I was teaching (many years ago now), and I got to hang out with him for much of the day, including sitting next to him at lunch (dumb luck, as far as I recall, rather than starstruck connivance).

I remember telling him some stories about the war in the air in WW1 (one of my pet subjects at the time). He said he hadn't realised that The Red Baron was an historical figure and not a fictional one, and he thought this might make an interesting subject for a poem. I don't know if he subsequently wrote anything on this theme. If he has, I suppose I should claim some credit.

I also recall an amusing name-dropping anecdote that he told me. When, as a young man, he had first started to make it big, his publisher had sent him on a promotional tour to the States with that other great English poet, Stevie Smith. It was his first time in a plane and he was terrified. Stevie, sitting next to him, noticed his white knuckles and rictus grin as they waited for takeoff. By that time, she was quite well-seasoned in US book tours and transatlantic flying, so she did her best to reassure him: "There's no need to worry. It's landing that's dangerous."

Rejection, schmejection!!

I have recently tried to get a few of my poems published in magazines. Very small, primarily online, predominantly humorous, American magazines. Needless to say, the replies eventually came back: "Not quite right for us".

WHAT?! Too dark? Too witty? Too obscure? Too obscurely witty, and with too dark a wit?? Or just too non-American?! I suspect the latter: despite my many foreign travels, and close affinity with America, something within me remains definitively English, or at least British. And my poetic tastes and influences tend to incline more towards Auden and Hughes, and Brian Patten and Roger McGough - rather than Allen Ginsberg or William Carlos Williams (although I like them too).

I was tempted to respond with my favourite 'Peanuts' cartoon on the subject;-

Snoopy, in his writer persona, is sitting atop his kennel, tapping away at his typewriter. He writes:

"Dear Editor,

Thank you for your rejection slip.

I think there may have been a slight misunderstanding.

What I wanted was for you to publish my story and send me a check for $20,000.

Sincerely... "

Instead, I shall keep silent, and bear my disappointment with dignity.

However, this may mean that more and more of my 'poetry' starts making its way on to this blog. You have been warned!!

Possible epitaphs

A game I play from time to time.

I've always found particularly poignant HAL the computer's half-assed apology (for murdering the rest of the crew) in '2001: A Space Odyssey', a line that's surely applicable to all of us:
"I know I've made some poor decisions recently."

Another contender that occurred to me recently, as I've realised I use it quite regularly as a lame excuse for..... putting my head around the door of a favourite bar for no good reason (and falling into an evening's drinking), dropping in on people unannounced (and trying to tempt them into an evening's drinking), stalking potential girlfriends (and then consoling my failure with an evening's drinking); yes, far too often I say I was just....
"In the area, with nothing better to do..."

Other ideas more specifically on a drinking theme include:
"Always Happy Hour Now!"

Or, adapting Beethoven:
"I shall drink beer in Heaven."

And it's hard not to like Spike Milligan's choice (actually on his gravestone, I believe):
"I told you I was ill!"

Or, a more optimistic one (for believers in reincarnation, especially?):
"Back in 5 minutes."

And a - perhaps - more pessimistic one (for believers in reincarnation, especially?):
"Here we go again!"

Or, following the late Bill Hicks:
"It was A RIDE."

There may be more of these in coming weeks.

Actually, my abiding favourite is from the end of Orson Welles's thriller 'Touch of Evil' ("the greatest B-movie ever made") where Marlene Dietrich's aging Mexican whore remarks on Welles's recently deceased cop: "What does it matter what you say about people when they're dead? He was some kind of a man, that's all."

Sunday, October 08, 2006

What Men Really Want

A rather ambitious title for this post, and a somewhat bogus one. It will be interesting to see if it starts showing up in search results!!

It is an issue that I have often discussed (more often with female friends than male ones, I admit), and one of the most commonly suggested answers has been something like this: all of the adoration, with none of the involvement; to be the object of an almost stalker-ish devotion, without the hassle of having to deal with a potential stalker; to have a woman who's left you regret it as bitterly and as long (forever!) as you've suffered over the end of a relationship; to have a woman who has loved you be marked permanently by the experience, unable to get over you.

I'd like to disown such an attitude (it does seem to brand us poor men as selfish, manipulative, emotionally aloof, and a trifle vindictive), but I confess I do recognise its appeal.

Well, these discussions some time ago gave rise to the following frivolous 'poem'. This is pretty much a 'make it up for yourself as you go along' piece (try this at home!). I liked the opening couplet; and any number of others flow easily from it. I am making this up again on the spot (Look - no safety net!):

Come and see me, when I'm dead
Shower sorries on my head

Say you've loved me long and true
Say, without me, you were blue

Keep my picture by your bed
Keep my memory in your head

Cherish every word I wrote
Preserve my favourite scarf and coat

Build a shrine in every room
And keep a vigil at my tomb...

But don't let my wife see you!

The people I fall for....

A friend recently sent me a link for one of those silly online quizzes - called something like 'Your Dead Soulmate'. (Thanks, Kate - nice to know we were sharing a moment of "nothing better to do" this week.)

My 'matches' were Frida Kahlo, Mata Hari, and Eva Peron! (Tip: Don't tick 'politics' as one of your interests.)

I suppose that trio are perhaps a mite less challenging, less threatening than Sylvia Plath - but I've written enough about The Ex this week.

I once observed to a friend that I was eternally single because all the women I fell for were either dead, mad, or married. This is a line that I subsequently included - perhaps unwisely - in my online dating profile, when I was cajoled by a friend into joining Match.com. (This was my buddy The Bookseller, who was so endearingly nervous about venturing into the realm of cyber-romance that he refused to do it unless I was 'holding his hand'. He has just married a rather lovely young lady he met through the site - but it took 4 years and a fair amount of frog-kissing.) It was, however, almost certainly an improvement on the unused first draft of a 'lonelyhearts' ad I had composed with the help of a (female) friend a year or two earlier: "Manic depressive, semi-alcoholic, krypto-suicidal (but with a great SOH!), frustrated would-be writer, needs faith in womankind restored."

Anyway, some examples of my bad 'choices'. Dead: any number of dazzling screen goddesses of yesteryear - Greta Garbo a particular weakness. Also Lady Helen Manners, a great English society beauty of the turn of the last century, who bewitched me when I found a couple of pictures of her in a book of early photography.

Mad: The Ex, and most of my previous exes.

(An aside - I remember describing the previous Great Love Of My Life to my best friend in these terms when I first started dating her: "Well, she's Australian. Very intelligent. Very feisty. A redhead. And she's currently doing a doctorate on feminist literature. I think she wants to be the next Germaine Greer." He was shaking his head pityingly at each new addition to this list, and when I'd finished, said simply, "You really don't like to make life easy for yourself, do you?" No, I suppose not. I like challenge and stimulation. Unfortunately, what I generally seem to get as well - or instead - are confrontation and craziness. Sigh.)

Married: Not that many, but a few sore temptations. I have a very strict moral qualm against interfering in a marriage (in fact, against interfering in any established relationship - another reason why I am perpetually single. I fear this principle is too comprehensively self-denying. There are very few women out there who are actually single; at least, not for a sufficient length of time for me to have any realistic chance of finding and wooing them. The vast majority of eligible candidates are actually treading water in failing relationships, and I am a fool for refusing to approach them. Perhaps I need to reconsider this.).

It has occurred to me from time to time that perhaps I should add 'barmaids' as another category of hopeless, unattainable infatuations. In my time, I have had it bad for Cornish Sally, Czech Monica, and Polish Natalia; but it seems so impolite (not to say doomed) to bother them at work: it is almost like interfering in a relationship - they belong to the job, to the bar, to all the customers, not just to you.

And that is why I am still - always - single. Well, the beginnings of an explanation, anyway; it is, of course, a huge can of worms!

Friday, October 06, 2006

Where in the world am I? (5)

I am in a country, a city with some of the worst air in the world.

The Weather Underground website, which I often check for the medium-range forecast, honours us with two unwelcome labels not widely enjoyed outside of Asia - 'Dust' and 'Smoke'.

I was enjoying a rooftop barbecue with some friends one evening earlier this week, when someone remarked, "Oh look, I can see a star. Stars! One.... two.... THREE STARS!" That was a remarkably clear night for these parts, a rare treat.

There's a full moon tonight, but there's very little chance of it penetrating the smog which now envelops us.

The source

Credit where it's due: this week's haiku was suggested by one of the Vasco Popa pieces I mentioned last week. Sometimes you find something that's just so right for someone, it's scary.


Some are nights, others stars

Each night lights up its star
And dances a black dance round it
Until the star burns out

Then the nights split up
Some become stars
The others remain nights

Again each night lights up its star
And dances a black dance round it
Until the star burns out

The last night becomes both star and night
It lights itself
Dances the black dance around itself

(from 'Games' by Vasco Popa - tr. from the Serbo-Croat by Anne Pennington)

A different haiku

A haiku in form, but not classically so in feeling or content. Inspired, once again, by The Ex.

Lady of Darkness,
Keep dancing your black dance, till
All the stars burn out.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Darker shadows

The Ex is bludgeoning my brain again. She is a lovely woman - passionate, vivacious, imaginative. She is also stark staring bonkers. It is a worry to me that so many of the women I have been drawn to over the years have proven to have such a broad streak of mental instability in their makeup. They are both damsel-in-distress and dragon at the same time; and my naive knight-saviour gets burned to a crisp every time.

There's an additional dynamic of creative tension between The Ex and me, in that we both like to write, share ideas with each other, are admiring and supportive of each other's work. Almost a Ted Hughes/Sylvia Plath kind of deal, I sometimes feared. Except that I'm not in the same league as Ted. Whereas she could be, one day, I think, better than Sylvia. She is far more profusely, eccentrically creative than I am - frequently producing lines that most of us would kill for. She is perhaps less good on overall structure or purpose, apt to get lost in the details and miss the big picture. Her judgement - or her confidence in her judgement - is sometimes not that good: she is a worrier, who will tease away at a phrase for months at a time - often, it seems to me, making it worse rather than better. If you polish something too much, you can wear it away to nothing. I am completely the opposite in my approach: I find first thoughts are usually best, and I trust my creative process. My best work usually plops out of my brain fully-formed, and I don't have to do much 'finishing' on it. That's not to say that there isn't any consideration of alternatives, a sifting and discarding of countless ideas and phrases. It's just that with me, when I'm on a roll, it happens extremely quickly and on a barely conscious level - and mostly before I put pen to paper, not afterwards.

So, I suspect she envies me my ease and confidence of composition. And I envy her her wilder imagination.

In fact, I once sent her the SMS:

Haiku Bar again -
Envious of the better poet,
And missing her kiss.

I like the simplicity of that, the sincerity of the compliment, the romantic ache of it. A pity that it would be thrown out of the haiku court for overstepping the bloody syllable count. I told you those things are harder than they look.

Although - I hope - she lacks Plath's suicidal bent, she does suffer terrible depressions. And when they get bad, she often gets irrationally, incontinently angry as well - lashing out unprovoked at those closest to her. That's been happening this week. Nothing to be done, I fear, except sit tight and ride out the storm.

I hope there isn't a suicidal element in this, although..... there has been a definite strain of that in some of the best of her poems that she's shown me. The art is not necessarily the same as the life, of course. It better not be. I try to keep an eye out for her - without becoming too solicitous or protective (she hates that!).

Since I met her, I have been infected (fruitfully!) with some of this darkness within her, and have taken to writing quite a number of suicide-themed poems myself. This little piece, in particular, was written in honour of her.

little black dress

she went to her wardrobe full of shadows
and picked out the darkest one to wear
as black as night
as black as death
as black as hate
as black as fear

later, all the morgue attendants commented
on how sexy she looked

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Found poetry

Well, not quite poetry, but there's something fortuitously allusive about the random use of English in T-shirt slogans these days.

I've just seen:


And I can see what the writer meant, I think.

Actually, I must confess, this was being worn by a rather generously-curved young woman, and some strange cognitive glitch in my brain read it first as:


The random text generators that many spam e-mails seem to be using these days occasionally throw up a particularly resonant - if not conventionally meaningful - combination of words too. I was especially drawn to this one recently: antagonistic mural, catatonia polymorphic silhouette.

And while on this theme, sort of, I recall my favourite creation from the days when I had a 'Magnetic Poetry' set on my fridge door (it was several years ago, while I was living in Toronto):

language like iron will beat your butt blue

You'd better believe it.

Monday, October 02, 2006

An Ancestry of Frivol

A brief explanation of the origin of my previous post. Or perhaps I should say, a favourite example of the kind of playful outlook which inspired it.

The Irish humorous writer Brian O'Nolan (celebrated in a couple of recent posts on my brother-blog, Barstool Blues) once described an elaborate invention which would sweep the snow from your roof as soon as it fell, use a huge vacuum pump to suck it down through your house via a system of ducts, and then store it in perfect condition in specially designed freezer chests in your basement.

The purpose of this device was to enable you, if some floppy young aesthete attending a dinner party of yours should happen to quote François Villon's famous line "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?", to confound his contrived melancholy by roaring, "I've got them in the cellar! Would you like to have a look?"

I have scarcely done justice to O'Nolan's original exposition of this idea (complete with diagrams). Quite simply, one of the funniest writers I have ever encountered.

The only contender who might possibly outstrip him was England's J.B. Morton, who, like O'Nolan, poured out his profuse comic talents in a regular newspaper column - in Morton's case, it was 'Beachcomber' in The Daily Express, a national treasure for fully fifty years. It is sometimes said of great actors that they could make even the reading of the phone book compelling. It was perhaps the epitome of Morton's genius that he achieved this in print: one of the irregular series which formed running jokes in his column was 'The Register of Huntingdonshire Cabmen', which was nothing more than short lists of names, and most of them not at all unusual or outlandish.... and yet the context, the setup was so perfect that it was side-splittingly funny.

To my knowledge, Morton wrote only this column, never any books or plays or even short stories. However, when I was about 10 or 12 I bought an anthology of great English humorous stories which included my first exposure to 'Beachcomber' - a story created by collating several short pieces from the column on a related theme: government preparations for the 1936 Coronation, and in particular, the headaches that this was causing for the FCO's roving troubleshooter in Africa, "Big White Carstairs". I laughed so hard, I cried. That's the first time I can ever remember that happening, and it hasn't reoccurred often since. Probably one of the great turning points in my life....

More shadows.....

A piece of utmost frivol..... but I kinda like it! (Forgive me if you've heard this one before. I did share it with certain of my correspondents earlier in the year.)

Take a picture of your shadow. Carry it with you everywhere from now on.

Then, if anyone should ever dare to suggest to you that your vigour or talent have declined from what they once were, you can pull out the picture and say, "No, NO - this is a shadow of my former self."