Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Simile Game

Several years ago, struck by the astonishing commercial success of parlour games based on word-power (Pictionary, Boggle, etc.), some friends of mine and I endeavoured to come up with the next 'million dollar concept'. Alas, our best effort was only 'Simile' - the idea being that you would be given two words at random from the whole vast treasury of the Oxford English Dictionary, and then be challenged to produce - under a strict time limit - a witty and convincing explanation of how the one was illustrative of the other.

One particularly 'fertile' pairing, I remember, was SEX and TRAINSPOTTING. One of the best comparisons we came up with back then was this:

They both involve long hours of waiting out in the cold, and then..... you blink, and you've missed it!

However, I favoured the even bleaker, even more cynical:

They are both doomed attempts to perceive variety in an event which is always fundamentally the same.

In my occasional poetic doodlings, I often like to take a similar approach - seizing upon a familiar image and stretching it to its limits. Trains are a particularly rich vein for metaphorical imagery, and so..... a little while ago, I came up with the following.

A correction
to my initial metaphor

I say You derailed me
but that's not fair

I was stationary in a siding
abandoned and rusting

when you briefly re-awoke in me
visions of The Great Age Of Steam

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Poem of the Week

Not that there is always a 'poem of the week' - sometimes there are several, sometimes there is none. I like to be irregular in my habits.... predictable only in my unpredictability.

I have been meaning for a while to post something else by Vasco Popa. This is from the beginning of his sequence of ghoulish nursery rhymes, 'Games'. I dedicated another of these, 'Ashes', to my friend The Poet a month or two back.

I first came to know these poems when I was about to start my teacher training at the University of Durham. I actually cited this as one of my inspirations in one of the first essays I wrote on that course (I had a wonderfully laidback, wilfully eccentric supervisor, who gleefully encouraged such artistic meanderings off the strict path of academic rigour), since it seemed highly appropriate to the ruthless self-examination we were all putting ourselves through as we tried to prepare mentally for our first forays into the 'battlefield' of the classroom.

Before Play

Close first one eye, then the other
Peek into every corner of oneself
Check that there are no spikes
No thieves, no cuckoo's eggs

Shut both eyes together
Crouch and jump
Jump high, high, high
To the top of oneself

Then fall
Under one's own weight
For days on end, fall deep deep deep
To the bottom of one's abyss

He who is not smashed utterly
He who remains whole
And gets up whole
He plays

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

Where in the world am I? (14)

Or, rather, where in the world was I?

I have just returned from 'the other place' - the second city of the country in which I now live, and the source of a bitter sibling rivalry with my home city.

They like to think that they are a richer, cleaner, more modern, more 'international' city than we are - and, in most respects, they are quite correct.

However, they do have probably The Worst Taxi Queue In The World at the airport. There is but a single 'snake' polished chrome queueing barrier, which doubles back on itself a good 5 or 6 times, and each stretch of which is around 100 yards long; and this seemingly interminable line creeps agonisingly slowly towards just a few pick-up points. And even this enormous 'snake' cannot contain the vast influx of passengers from domestic and overseas flights - often the line stretches in a disordered mass for hundreds of yards further down the front of the airport. It can take upwards of an hour to get a cab.

Not very efficient. Not very 'modern' or 'international'. Don't get me started.

I'm not a great fan of 'the other place' - it's so far up its own arse, it hasn't seen daylight for years.

Dicebamus hesterna die....

And.... we're back!

Well, actually I was back a couple of days ago, but my Internet link was still being troublesome (and I thought I'd whinged enough on here about that now), and work has just been MAD so far this week (and I thought I'd better not start whingeing on here about that; it remains my earnest hope not to become quite so tediously self-indulgent, so dully diaristic as most bloggers....).

I am probably about to indulge in a bit of a whinge about the place I've just come back from (same shit, different city); so I thought I'd counter that with a brief (and uncharacteristic) burst of positivity. I do rather enjoy the quirks of the English language as practised by non-native speakers; and this country, my adopted home, is one of the world champions in this eccentric artform.

I mean, why just go to a 'carwash', when you could indulge instead in some 'automobile adornment'? Why wear boring old 'leisure clothes', when you could flaunt 'toggery of recreation'? Why shop for 'fancy goods', when you could go to the 'Elaborate Store'??

Yes, this deliberate - if misguided - phrasemaking is a constant source of delight.

Sometimes, however, a mere typographical error can tickle the funnybone even more. One reason I've been so busy lately is that I am spending every spare minute helping a friend to record an audiobook. Today we had to read a passage about differences in social attitudes between the East and the West.... in which we learned that the West is dominated by "the unclear family". Yes, yes, I know what they mean. That one caused watering eyes and sore ribs for several minutes, I can tell you.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

This week's Haiku

A day early, owing to an out-of-town jaunt.

Another very traditional one, this - inspired by a Japanese original I read long, long ago.

The Lovers

In secret midnight
Woods, each month two lovers meet -
Waterfall and moon.

Happy Thanksgiving!

For each of the last 4 years, I have organized a Thanksgiving Dinner here in my adopted home town for all the 'waifs & strays' among my American friends - those without a family here to spend their great national holiday with.

This year, alas, I find myself on an out-of-town trip. And, although there will doubtless be Thanksgiving celebrations aplenty going on in 'the other place' which I am visiting, I'm afraid I don't number any Americans amongst my friends down there, so.... Thanksgiving will not be happening for me this year.

I am very disappointed by this. I have, over the past 15 years or so, come to enjoy this holiday far more than Christmas. It seems - at least for those of us lucky enough to be able to enjoy it as 'outsiders' - to encompass all the best bits of the December festivities (gatherings of friends and family, feeling inordinately jolly and well-disposed towards the world in general, eating and drinking far too much), while excluding most of the worst bits (expensive gift-giving, the pressure of having to spend time with family members you don't particularly like, the entire country coming to a standstill for the best part of 10 days). And it adds in some unique little extras of its own - pumpkins (not a big fan of pumpkin pie... but pumpkin soup - yaaayy!), the big football game on TV.

I think it probably helps also that I have no childhood experience of Thanksgiving - whereas Christmas is inextricably linked with countless old yet vivid memories, some painfully nostalgic (far-off sledging escapades - "Ah, Rosebud..."), others just painful (family rows, disappointing presents, early romantic disasters). My first Thanksgiving party was at Oxford in the early '90s (I've always had a lot of American friends; and many of my contemporaries or near-contemporaries at University emigrated to the States in pursuit of love or a better career: I now have far more of a social life around Washington, DC than I do in London), and there have been several others since, a couple of them actually in America; and always, essentially, these were gatherings of friends rather than family (and hence, matters of choice rather than duty). Well, not my family, anyway. Being able to watch other people's family bickering from the safety of the sidelines (just occasionally throwing down a flag when things get too rough) is so much more entertaining than being caught up in your own!

I shall miss the big day this year.... will have to try to celebrate twice as extravagantly next year.

Anyway, I would like to wish a very Happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers - especially the American ones, to whom the greeting might actually mean something.

On again, off again

I am still being tormented by the obscure persecution of my local Net censors (and the flabbergasting indifference of my Internet provider).

This evening - after the umpteenth complaint to the useless provider, and after enduring for the umpteenth time their inevitable facetious, insolent response that perhaps I should get a new computer - my Internet connection is again functioning. Now, of course, I am on tenterhooks, living in a constant terror that this will be yet another false dawn, that I may once again be cut off at any moment.

How have they done this to me? Why have they done this to me?

It is perhaps just as well that I am about to depart on a long weekend break, so I won't have to worry about any of this again for 5 days. I'll see you all again (for more spleen-venting, I fear) next week.

"As flies to wanton boys, so we are to the gods...."

A bumper week for poetry

I happened to be enjoying a few bevvies with my pal The Choirboy last night when, for no particular reason that I can now recall, these lines of Housman sprang into my mind - an epitaph from a First World War cemetery somewhere in the Mediterranean, I believe.

Here dead we lie, because we did not choose
To live, and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is - and we were young.

A. E. Housman (1859-1936)

Smoke gets in your eyes ('Where in the world am I?')

I am (as I think I may have mentioned in these pages before) living in a country, a city for which the WeatherUnderground website occasionally categorizes the day's weather outlook as 'Smoke'. I haven't checked if that's what we were told to expect these last few days - but it should have been.

A protracted spell of damp wintry chill has unfortunately coincided with a sudden peak in rubbish-burning (and/or one of those occasional "let's burn play money to keep the ancestors off our backs" festivals), so that the air quality since Sunday has been choking. On Monday morning it was particularly vile, downright toxic: visibility was down to a few hundred yards.

My friend's taxi driver that morning assured her that the sinister, clammy fug was "only fog". Er, no, I think not - fog isn't BROWN. And it doesn't smell and taste of burning. And it doesn't leave a fine dusting of beige soot over everything.

Things are finally clearing up a bit today, thank heavens.

Living in this city is taking years off my life....

Monday, November 20, 2006

Another (morbid?) poem

To divert me from my impotent rage against the government and the Internet company, I once again trawl through my archives in search of a poetic offering to share with you.

I'm not really sure if this one is 'finished' - although it arrived fully-formed in my head when I woke up one morning, and I don't usually like to mess too much with those. I had gone to bed playing around with the phrase 'the cold kiss of the razor', and by the next day that had grown into this. Funny how the mind works!

By the by, my dangerously intense ex-girlfriend, The Poet, thinks this is the best piece of work I've shown her. I don't particularly rate her judgment (I suspect it's just that the dark twist at the end appeals to her suicide-fetish) - but praise is always welcome!

The Razor

The razor loves skin
Loves polishing it to shiny smoothness
With each morning's cold caress

The razor loves soap
Sweeping up great drifts of whiteness
Clearing a path through the foam

The razor loves water
Cool rinsing under the tap
Or boiling clean in a cauldron

The razor loves stubble
Scything through the rasp of the day's new growth
Reducing it to a litter of tiny twigs

But most of all
The razor loves blood
Each nick, each scrape, each lanced pimple
Is practice for the day
When it may open a wrist, a throat

Help, I'm being oppressed!

My Internet isolation continues. The whole country is being denied Wikipedia (the government here is laughably petty), but it seems that I alone am being shut out from Yahoo, Google, and MSN.

Why? Why? WHY?

A few of my expat friends reported similar experiences a week or so ago, but their interruptions of service lasted only half a day or a day. One theory now being touted around is that the net censors at Kafka Central have been experimenting with some new filtering software.... and, er, in my case, forgot to switch it off again after they'd finished.

It's so CRAZY, it just might be true.

Anyway, the Internet company is obstinately maintaining that it has no idea what the problem is; and, having somehow got wind of my death threats against their personnel, they are refusing to send anyone around to see me in person.

This really is driving me up the f***ing wall!!!!!!!!!

A Prisoner Once More

After two-and-a-half days of blessed normality, last night my Internet connection went feeble on me again. I can get Blogger, but that's about it (Cruel Fate, what are you up to this time?).

I am incandescent with rage. The next Internet company guy that shows up at my door is likely to wind up with his severed head displayed on a pole outside my apartment building. People are going to suffer for this. I want my e-mail, and I want it NOW!!!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Sunday.... is a day for poetry

Robert Graves has long been a weakness of mine. Well, some of his stuff, anyway. This one has been on my mind a lot recently.

Love At First Sight

"Love at first sight," some say, misnaming
Discovery of twinned helplessness
Against the huge tug of procreation.

But friendship at first sight? This also
Catches fiercely at the surprised heart
So that the cheek blanches and then blushes.

Robert Graves (1895-1985)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Where in the world am I? (12)

I am in a country where the notion of 'customer service' is still completely unknown.

For example, despite there being tens of thousands of English-speaking foreigners in this city, the country's main Internet service provider has no helpline in English. I had to ask one of my former students to hassle them for me about my 4.5-day interruption of service..... and she was told:

"It's not our problem."

"There's nothing we can do." (This nation's No. 1 Favourite Lie!)

"We've no idea what's causing the trouble."

"It's probably a fault with his computer, or his modem; they're probably too old, he should replace them."

And, the climax..... this corker:
"Well, if he can still access local websites, what's his problem? Why does he want to look at foreign websites?" (Hmmm, let me see - well, quite apart from the language issues, local websites are mostly SHITE!)

In the years I have spent here, I have come to realise that there must be a SECRET 'CUSTOMER SERVICE' MANUAL..... because, if you are ever brave enough or foolhardy enough to try to return something to a deparment store, you will always hear exactly the same litany of responses from the shop clerk:

"You didn't buy it here." (I love that as an opener! "Yes, I did.")

"You don't have the receipt." ("Here it is.")

"We only accept returns within 7 days." ("I bought it 6 days ago." OR "This sign on your desk here says you accept returns within 28 days!")

"If it's faulty, you should take it back to the manufacturers." ("I just called the manufacturers, and they said you'd replace it for me.")

"We don't have any more in stock."

And so on. And on. And on. They try to stonewall you into submission. ALWAYS. There's got to be some sort of training programme for this.

Cruel Fate

Oh, how she loves to joke....
Today, although still painfully slow, my Internet access did seem to be functional again. I was even able to log into Yahoo (well, I've managed that once or twice before, but never got beyond the welcome page. Since last Sunday - when I was able to read but not reply to a few e-mails - I have in effect been completely shut out.), and read a few of the 30-odd e-mails that have accumulated so far this week. Then the site crashed again. Bugger, bugger, bugger.
Even more galling, I was able to read but not reply to the most recent message from my darling, The Artist..... and it appears that she has been reading this blog (good - so at least she knows what the problem has been with my sudden lapse in communication), but not Round-The-World Barstool Blues ( on which I had recently addressed her much more directly, hoping that she would be able to reply in a comment. [Note: Since I have lost my e-mail, I have dispensed with 'comment moderation'.]
So, Artist, dear Artist, if you are reading this - please say 'hi'.
PS Have you noticed how - just to add to my vexation - Blogger insists on scrambling the formatting on this post? What have I done to deserve this??

Another Friday, another haiku

The current too strong,
Pulls me under – dangerous
Stream of consciousness.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Poem from the Nuthouse

Not one of mine this time, you'll be relieved to hear.

My recollection of John Clare yesterday (a favourite of mine since I studied him for O-Level long, long ago) prompted me to dig out this - one of his greatest and best-known works, from the later decades of his life when he was confined in an Insane Asylum just outside of Northampton.

There have been few better evocations of isolation and abandonment, and the lonely rages they produce.

I Am

I am - yet what I am none cares or knows.
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes;
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows toss'd

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest - that I loved the best -
Are strange; nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below, above the vaulted sky.

John Clare (1793-1864)

Prison Journal

This is the third day of my captivity.

Already I am giving in to despair. The walls are closing in on me, and I feel I shall never see daylight or breathe fresh air again. I must be strong, I must be strong.

I must think of The Artist, who may yet be waiting for me upon my release.... whenever that day may come. I must be strong, I must be strong.

As John Clare (a fine, self-educated 'peasant' poet of the early 19th Century, who, tragically, spent most of his later years confined in a mental institution) once said:
"I envy e'en the fly his gleams of joy..."

If I don't get my e-mail back soon..... BAD things will happen! ("What they be, yet I know not; but they shall be the terrors of the earth!")

My mind trudges from one side of my tiny cyber-cell to the other, and back again, and back again, and back again. This blog is now my only window on the world. A barred window, but a window nonetheless.

"No TV and no beer make Homer go mad."

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Pulling the ripcord

Some years ago in London, I was sharing a house with a guy called Mad Irish Dave. The nickname there says everything you need to know. I loved the guy dearly, and we had some great times together, but he did drive me completely up the wall. This is one of my fonder memories of that year we spent together.

One day, cruising the Classifieds for a new job, Dave had come upon an ad for some very dodgy-sounding sales operation and decided to check out the 'more information' telephone number. The recorded message was so painfully funny, we half suspected it was a practical joke - a set-up for one of those playing-pranks-on-the-public TV or radio shows, or a satirical 'event' contrived by some wacko modern artist. But no, after repeated listening we came to realise that it was all too real: an archetypally bumptious self-made man, overdosed on NLP and other self-empowerment bullshit, and utterly lacking in any sense of self-irony. His breathless spiel exalting himself, his company, and the dubious 'opportunity' he was offering to applicants, began something along the lines of, "Are you successful? Do you want to be successful? I'm successful. I know I'm successful, because I drive a top-of-the-range BMW, I wear hand-tailored suits, I have a beautiful wife, I own a huge house, I take 6 foreign holidays a year, etc., etc., etc., etc. ...." This went on and on, without a single beat for genuine self-reflection, for a good two or three minutes: an astonishing performance! I wince and snigger, in about equal measure, to recall it even now. "Do you want to be like me??" Oh, god no, please, anything but that!

The Super-Spiv's hilarious message concluded - after exhorting those who were brave enough and go-getting enough to pitch for a chance to join him in his materialistic paradise by leaving a message on his voicemail - with the would-be inspiring observation: "Remember - your mind is like a parachute: it doesn't work properly unless it is fully open." In other hands, perhaps, this twee Christmas Cracker motto might actually make a useful point; but from him, it just provoked further uncontrollable guffawing in us. Really, I mean rolling around on the floor in life-threatening paroxysms for several minutes on end.

Drunk and/or stoned over the course of that weekend, Dave and I left dozens of parodic messages on his voicemail number, vying to outdo each other in our spoofing of his bombastic style. Several of our efforts hinged on reworkings of the glib parachute simile. My favourite was:
"My mind is like a parachute: it can't stop me falling; it can only slow me down."

'Morbid' thoughts?

I have ribbed my friend The Poet for the dark, crypto-suicidal streak in much of her work - but I am probably far worse: I am The Emperor of Bi-Polarity! My great unsuitable inspiration, the alcoholic writer Jeffrey Bernard, for many years wrote a regular column in The Spectator magazine that was once described by a critic (or fan?) as "a suicide note in weekly parts". I hope this blog doesn't become quite that gloomy, quite that morosely navel-gazing. I recognise the danger, and will try to fight against it.

Indeed, even my darker pieces of writing are usually taking the piss out of my gloominess. This is a representative example:

A Dispute on Poetry

There are two schools of Poetry.

One school says
That every poem has one of two subjects:
The death of Love,
Or the love of Death.

The other school says
That these two subjects
Are the same.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Diversionary Whimsy

In order to distract myself from my mounting ire about my current state of 'virtual house arrest', I rummage around in my 'archives' for a while.... and turn up this amusing piece of frivol (well, it amuses me...) from 6 months or so ago.

Consolation for Writer's Block

According to a German poet (I forget which one):
"Sleep is good; death is better;
But the best of all is never to have been born.
They're a gloomy race, the Germans;
But I take some comfort in this thought.

I heard two writers arguing:
One ruing that his works were languishing unread,
While the other complained that his were still unpublished.
"Mine," I said, "are all unwritten."
(But I think that German guy was right.)

Worser and worser

After a 'hard day at the office', I return home to find that I am once again comprehensively locked out of Yahoo Mail.... and all things Google (including my 'for emergencies only' alternate e-mail addresses on Gmail).... and Wikipedia.

It may just be a temporary, and perhaps highly localized glitch that is victimizing only me; but I have my doubts - "It's only common sense: there are no 'accidents' round here."

If it is just me that is being denied the use of the more informative bits of the Internet, I am quite at a loss to imagine what I can have done to merit such oppression. (Unless some crazed bicycle lover in high places has suddenly got it in for me!)

If the whole country is being subjected to this lockdown, it becomes rather more worrying - whatever can it be that is happening out there in the wider world that 'they' don't want us to know about?

I am reminded of a favourite 'Punch' cartoon from back in the '70s: two fur-wrapped Eskimos (or do we have to call them 'Inuits' these days?) are standing outside their igloo near the North Pole, looking up into the enormous cloudless sky above them, watching anxiously as two nuclear missiles cross high overhead (one labelled USA, the other CCCP); one Eskimo comments to his companion, "It's times like this when I wish we had a radio."


Tell me why....

It's Monday.

A new day. A new week. A new bag of shit to deal with from the local Internet service.

Today, we have no Yahoo mail. Well, at the fourth or fifth attempt, I was finally able to log-in successfully, and read a few of the mails in my Inbox - but every other function (Delete, Compose, Next Message) is either freezing or being timed out.

Not sure if this is a Yahoo-being-crap problem, my Internet service provider being crap, my computer being crap (nearly 5 years old - unimaginably ancient for a laptop these days!), or the government censors here being crap. Perhaps a combination of all of these.

But a right pain-in-the-arse it is!

In the last few years, I have become desperately dependent on e-mail for my social life, my love life, my business life. Any interruption to the service is a colossal inconvenience, and sends my stress levels through the roof! Gggggrrrrrrr....

I may have to start communicating with my friends and loved ones solely via this blog! And give up on 'business' altogether!!

"I wanna shoo-oo-oo-oot the whole day down..."

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Strange, Eventful History of Bicycles and Me

I can't really remember a time when I wasn't afraid of bicycles.

Perhaps it began when my parents made an inept attempt to force me to learn to ride a bicycle (when I was about 8 or 9 years old: rather too late! )... using my brother's. My brother is nearly 7 years older than me: his bicycle was enormous: my feet could barely reach the pedals; there was no way I could hope to balance on the bloody thing. I tried to sit on it; fell off; tried again; fell off again; tried again; fell off again; gave up.... forever.

By that time, we had moved to Monmouth, a small, rather hilly town on the Welsh border. We lived at the top of a particularly big, particularly steep hill - so, there really wasn't much of an incentive to try to ride a bike anywhere (that may have been why my brother had abandoned his).

About the same time, I recall being terrorized for a week or so by a gang of much older boys, who would hang around outside my school threatening to beat me up - apparently because they had taken umbrage at my innocent remark to them that it must be quite hard work pushing their bikes up the (monstrously steep) hill.

A few years later, in my early teens, I was actually THROWN by a bicycle... when I wasn't even riding it. It was then that I realised just how vicious these beasts could be. My parents had hired bicycles so that we could more easily (hah!!) get around a Scottish island (Eigg, I think it was) we were visiting for a few days. I tried riding mine a few times; fell off; remembered my earlier painful experience; and gave up. For some reason, I ended up pushing it to quite a lot of places (perhaps my parents slyly thought that, if I took the bike with me everywhere we went, I might feel moved to try to ride it home again afterwards). I gave that up after the vicious bronco incident. We were walking across a bumpy field (and god knows, I found it hard enough to push the damn thing in a straight line even on a metalled road): the bicycle - displaying a malevolent mind of its own - twisted its handlebars out of my grip, and made a beeline for a deep pothole just in front of us; simultaneously (it really did seem like one of those elaborately orchestrated 'accidents' in the 'Omen' films), the bottom of my trouser-leg became hopelessly entangled in the pedal.... so, I was left without a leg to stand on (or with only one, which was not enough) as the bicycle veered suddenly across in front of me and pitched downward into the hole.... and I went flying over the handlebars, to land heavily on my face. I suppose I'm lucky it was such a muddy field: that softened the fall, and prevented serious injury - other than to my pride. How my parents laughed!!

I have viewed bicycles with loathing and distrust ever since that day (if not before).

There has been no shortage of incidents since to confirm me in this view. Perhaps the only time that I have really given much thought to trying to conquer my phobia was when I started as an undergraduate at Oxford - Oxford is, after all, a 'city of bicycles': fairly flat, an ideal size, and an early pioneer of bicycle paths. A sizeable proportion of the students there favour bicycles as their primary means of transportation. I was very seriously considering buying a cheap bicycle in my first year, but... one of my friends, almost as bicycle-challenged as me, had taken the brave plunge more quickly, and... one day he came into the Dining Hall covered in cuts and bruises, his arm in a sling.
"Christ, Hugh, what happened to you? Were you in a fight?"
"No, I had an accident on the bike."
"What?! Did a car hit you?"
"No. I... er... just sort of lost my balance and fell off."
He and I both gave up on the bicycle idea after that.

I did briefly contemplate another attempt to overcome my demons at the beginning of my second year, but.... my new best friend among that year's Freshers had his bike stolen within an hour of buying it.... and decided it would be easier to walk everywhere. I took that as a sign (I didn't need much persuading by that point).

I still revisit this issue from time to time, but increasingly half-heartedly with each passing year. I don't think you'll ever see me on a bicycle now.

I referred to my distaste for the vile bicycle as a 'phobia' just now, but I don't think that's really the appropriate term. As I've outlined above, I believe it is an entirely rational, entirely justified fear. Bicycles are - as I suggested yesterday - animate entities (or at least, their behaviour suggests that they are). And they are evil (or at least....). It is entirely rational to be afraid of tigers, Black Mambas, and Great White Sharks. It is entirely rational to be afraid of bicycles.

Such, at least, is my contention.

"So, we may now please to begin, yes?"

Friday, November 10, 2006

They can smell the fear....

It was somewhat dishonest of me to imply in my last post that it is only in my adopted country that I am afraid to ride a bicycle. I am afraid to ride a bicycle anywhere. In fact, I am afraid of bicycles.

And bicycles, I feel, can sense my fear - they feed on it, gloat over it, taunt me for it. When I walk past a chained bicycle, I always know that it is straining at its shackles, trying to get at me. Quite often, this stretching towards me will overbalance it and send it crashing to the ground (without any other physical force being involved - really!). This has happened to me many times. I have even seen whole rows of bicycles collapse domino-style, as I pass by a 'safe distance' away.

I had long thought that this terror of bicycles might be a unique hang-up of mine; so, I was considerably consoled to find that my Irish literary hero, Brian O'Nolan, in his greatest work, 'The Third Policeman', elaborates an elegant theory to account for such phenomena. He proposes a riff on 'atomic theory', by which the atoms of a bicycle are constantly being interchanged with those of its rider through prolonged close contact, and thus the rider gradually takes on the some of the character of his bicycle, and the bicycle acquires the character of its rider. (You can always tell a man, he says, who has become more than 50% bicycle, because he has to lean against something whenever he is not moving forward.)

Where in the world am I? (11)

I am in a country where bicycle lights are unknown.

I have even heard it suggested that they are illegal here (on the Procrustean principle that it would be unegalitarian to afford a higher chance of avoiding death on the roads only to the affluent?).

Bicycle helmets are likewise unknown. This means that even quite low-speed collisions are apt to result in skull-contents being spilled on the sidewalk. I have personally witnessed this three times; and I'm sure it is a daily occurrence in the big cities. I will not ride a bicycle here.

Of course, it is not only the cyclists who are endangered by this unaccountable lack of even the most basic safety equipment. It is the large numbers of unlit bicycles - rather than the psychotic, incompetent car drivers - which is, I'm sure, responsible for the majority of pedestrian casualties on the streets here. The danger is particularly acute at this time of year as the evenings rapidly colonize the afternoon: in the half-light of dusk, these bicycles become 'cloaked', completely invisible.

Not only invisible, but inaudible too. In the good old, bad old days, bicycles were all so cheap and shoddily-made that you could hear them coming a long way off; each had its own 'sonic fingerprint', a distinctive collection of rusty wheezes, clinks, and rattles. As society becomes more affluent, so the bicycles are becoming more stylish and sophisticated..... more silent, more deadly.

I know that somewhere out there is a bicycle with my name on it....

Random picture

Ah, the joys of a digital camera...! 'Flying Saucers' everywhere!!

If it's Friday....

Spur to memory,
Shards of a forgotten life:
An old address book.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Another beachcomber

Probably, bubbling somewhere just below the surface in the turbid soup of my creative subconsciousness, this famous, beautiful line was making its contribution to the little poem in my last post:

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Isaac Newton (1642–1727)

On the beach

After the Friday Haiku, the Monday Metaphor?? Perhaps not. I don't feel I really need another regular strand on this blog... Just another of my occasional poetic offerings.

One of the first things my wacky friend (no, I mean 'whacko') The Poet ever told me, when we met a little over a year ago, was that she was working on a piece built around the line "Who am I to say what gleams?" I have never learned what became of that; maybe she abandoned it. Anyway, I was intrigued, fascinated by the thought - though severely out of sympathy with it. It seemed immediately suggestive of a depressive and/or insecure streak in her nature; and although I have the former in spades, the latter completely passes me by - I don't think I ever ask myself a "Who am I to...?" question: I tend to believe that I have a right to an opinion on everything!

This, then, is my favourite of a number of short pieces I wrote back then in response to this stimulus. One of my 'instant poems' - my best stuff always seems to just plop into my head as I wake up in the morning (particularly if waking indecently early, after a slightly disordered night's sleep).... as if left under my pillow by The Poem Fairy.


Of a billion pebbles on the beach
The shiny one catches our eye
We pick it up, admire, caress
Want to take it home
But would not leave the beach poorer
So put it back
Thinking we will find it again

If it is bright enough
We will

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Visual clues

My impulsive posting of a photograph yesterday has created quite a little surge of excitement among certain of my correspondents. (Although I don't think anyone has seen fit to comment on the blog post itself yet. That's the trouble with having a blog that is read almost solely by friends and acquaintances, I suppose. The great viral marketing project hasn't really taken off yet. Ah, but it will, it will....)

Time for the warnings and disclaimers (for any readers who don't know me; or for those who do, but have forgotten what I look like). The guy in the picture is not necessarily me. It's not necessarily even someone I know, or a picture taken by me. It could just be some amusing oddity I dredged up off the Internet, for heaven's sake.

Even if it were me (well, all right, yes, it is), and even if it were taken recently (within the last year or so, I suppose), you still have no right to be assuming that this is where I live now.

But, as it happens, this snap was taken in my home city, and - though perhaps a little obscure - the quirky chef mannequin sheltering from the rain next to me is a pretty readily identifiable local landmark. So, we're playing 'Where in the world am I?' again, but this time with hard-to-identify photographic hints. I'm such a tease!!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Who'll stop the rain?

The rain, it raineth every day
On the just as on the unjust fella;
But... more upon the just because
The unjust has the just's umbrella.

Friday, November 03, 2006

That time of the week again....

The talk is too good
To end; days later, I still
Hear it in my head.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

My favourite, most terrifying Dubya joke

Continuing my Star Trek stream-of-consciousness.....

Dubya has been entertaining one of the Saudi sheikhs in Washington. When the sheikh comes to the Oval Office for his major audience with the President, he begins with some smalltalk about his first experience of American TV.

"I was enjoying television in my hotel room last night, when a very old show came on. I believe it is called 'Star Trek'. A very wonderful story. I was particularly struck by the fact that the crew of the spaceship is made up of many different nationalities. It is a fine example of international co-operation, of brotherly love between all the races of mankind. On the control deck, there is an Asiatic, a Russian, an African-American woman, and even an alien. But I could not help but notice that there was no Arab on the crew. Tell me, why do you think that is?"

Dubya drawls, "Well, ya see, it's set in the future."

Where in the world am I? (10)

I am in a country where Star Trek is almost completely unknown.

Astounding, but true.

Oh, some of the more recent TV incarnations are now available on pirated DVDs, but I think they are purchased exclusively by the many foreigners here. Pirated versions of the films are mysteriously rare-as-hen's-teeth. The original, iconic '60s TV show simply does not exist here.

I think they are missing out on something important. I mean, I'm not a huge fan myself, certainly not a 'Trekkie', but... it is surely the single most important pop cultural landmark of our times... and, in its strongly ethical underpinnings, a general force for good, for enlightenment in the world.

Star Trek whimsy

This quip is an old, old favourite of mine - and certain of my friends may recognise it from one of my e-mail bulletins several years ago. These are the kind of thoughts that come to me when my brain is more-than-usually disordered, when I am stressed or can't sleep. I have had an awful cold, a persistent cough for the last 5 days, and so have been a stranger to sleep. And so, this thought, and others like it, have been returning to me.

When Jean-Luc Picard has sex... does he begin by glancing down at his flaccid penis, and giving himself the command, "Engorge!"?

I would like to think that he does.

Run through the jungle

Yet another of my tomorrow-themed poetic experiments; this one cross-fertilized by my occasional forays into Vietnam imagery.

Thousand-Yard Stare

Tomorrow is a distant treeline, glimmering greenly;
Lush with possibility, teeming with fears;
Seething with mystery, dense with death;
Intriguing and threatening, it both beckons and appals.
We hesitate to move forward, but have no choice –
We are compelled to advance across the minefield of Today.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

More Epitaphs

The morbid streak in my humour has always been attracted to this glib inversion of the churchyard standard:
"Not sleeping, only dead."

Or, mischievously, cantankerously (in very small letters, obviously):
"If you can read this - you're walking on my f***ing grave, you bastard!"

Or (the drinker's heaven):
"Gone to the final 'lock in'
With the Great Landlord in the Sky."

Or (gratuitous, irrelevant Monty Python reference):
"But I didn't eat the salmon."

Or (gratuitous Bill & Ted reference):
"Might yet be back. Still playing 'Twister' with Death."

Or (gratuitous Fu Manchu reference):
"The world shall hear from me again."

Or.... well, I need a little story to introduce this one. The splendidly lugubrious, facially expressionless American comedian Steven Wright once appeared in a short TV comedy playlet about an eternal graduate student who is suddenly pitched into the real world when, after several years of failing to complete his doctorate, his parents finally cut off his allowance. Forced to search for a job for the first time in his life, he strikes lucky when his first application lands on the desk of an HR manager who used to be his undergraduate girlfriend. She takes pity on him and invites him in for a 'straighten-you-out' talk. "So, what have you been doing for the last 8 years?" she asks. "You have my resumé," he responds with imperious unconcern. She glances disbelievingly at the almost-blank sheet of A4 on her desk, and says,
"I wouldn't call 'Did no harm' a resumé."
Ah, but I would.

Or, finally, the only one I can think of now that is perhaps even better than that one, even more appropriate to me - a 'Wizard of Id' cartoon I was particularly fond of (and had pinned on my wall for several years... accompanied by the woefully small first payslip from my first long-term job), in which two ancient peasant women are standing in the churchyard contemplating the grave of one of their husbands:
"He never had much success in life, did he?"
"No. He was a closet intellectual."

They're at it again!

Those fine fellows at Kafka Central have a new game: today, Google is blocked. (Not GoogleScholar or GoogleEarth or any of those other sophisticated tools that might just possibly enable you to discover some state secrets if you rummaged long and hard enough - but just the common or garden Google search engine.)

It is still readily available through Anonymouse, at least.

I can only conjecture that the Director of the State Council for Unnecessary Interference with the Internet is taking hefty backhanders from the people at Anonymouse. There seems to be no other reasonable explanation.

Hmmm, not such a bad idea. Perhaps I should start taking paid ads myself....