jfs: (boy with cat)
In lieu of actual content, a story, from a long time ago.

The tale of King Cedrun and the Sword of Ages )

A memory

Mar. 27th, 2012 09:17 am
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When I was 11 or so, I cycled to Tywyn.

I wasn't on my own. It was organised by the local church as a youth trip. There wasn't sponsorship or anything like that - it was just considered to be a good way to spend a weekend. Cycle, camp, play on the beach, come home. It was almost certainly done in the summer holidays - it's about an 85 mile cycle, and we did it in a day, from flat Shropshire into hilly Wales and down the long road from Machynlleth to the sea, where you can pretty much free wheel all the way. There was a grandly named 'support car' carrying all the luggage, and about 10 of us cycling.

I can't remember if Nici and I was amongst the youngest, but I think we were. Nici had been my friend at school since I was 5 and we were in the same class together. He has two brothers and was unusual for many things; he was a good artist from an early age, talented at almost anything he put his hand to, very charismatic. Nici's dad was a teacher, and he was bringing up Nici and his brothers on his own - he'd separated from his wife. This may not sound unusual now, but in Telford in the early 80s, especially as we were all Catholic, it was cause for comment.

I don't remember much about the ride there. Flashes - basically mental photos of punctures being mended, rests being taken. And that long, long road down which was almost like flying.

That night, Nici and I shared a tent. So it was me he woke in the dead of night, wheezing and unable to breath. I flicked on my torch. It was silver barrelled and threw out very little light - certainly nothing as useful or bright as the maglights I have now, or even the mini LED torches I used to take clubbing with me. A wan yellow light, shining on the face of my friend, who was unable to breath and slowly turning blue.

He panicked. I panicked. Calling out got no response from the tents around us - I'm guessing that what was the dead of night for us was probably about 10:30 and that the adults and teenagers had seen that we were dead to the world and so had gone to the pub. This was the 80s; James Bulger and Madeline McCain hadn't been born yet and there was no harm in the world that was going to come to 2 young boys in a camping field in a small Welsh coastal town.

Health and Safety and Risk Assessments hadn't been invented yet. Neither had mobile phones, of course, so we couldn't just call for help.

So - both of us realised we were on our own. There was only one thing to do - get up, find someone else, get an ambulance. We got dressed, I wrapped Nici in a sleeping bag for extra warmth and we set out into the night. Taking action calmed us and the cold night air eased his wheezing. While he still wasn't breathing well, being out and active meant that he could at least get some air into his lungs. So with him wrapped up and leaning on me, we headed towards the lights at the corner of the field where the road was.

I don't think we were quite at the road before we met most of our group coming back from the pub. While there were initial questions as to why we were out of bed, as soon as they heard Nici's breathing they acted. The local hospital was very close by and Nici was admitted straight away. They quickly diagnosed that he was having an asthma attack - whether it had been brought on by the exertion of the cycle that day, or an allergy to something in the field, or something else, I still to this day don't know. And asthma, once diagnosed, is trivially easy to treat.

Nici was kept in overnight, and wasn't allowed cycle back the following day. He sat in the support car and as he and I had been keeping pace with each other on the journey there, I wasn't allowed (nor would I have wanted to) cycle back on my own.

Nici grew up fine. He started seeing Jo when they were both 16; they got married when he got a job in a middle eastern state that wouldn't have been happy with them co-habiting, and they're still together now, 26 years later. I'm in touch with them both via Facebook and they look happy. I've no idea if he still carries an inhaler with him, or if it was something that passed once he got out of his teens. Given that he and Jo run marathons together, I'm guessing he's doing okay.
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About 18 months ago, a friend of mine died and I wrote a post here on LJ where I said:
The ghost in the machine is starting to form. Is that pretentious? We used to be tiny creators of intellectual detritus - most of us would have letters that were sent, perhaps marginalia for future generations to pore over. Few of us created more than a few megabytes of memorabilia.

But now? What with Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, LiveJournal, YouTube, the Usenet archives and all the other places that we leave our words, our images and our sounds? We each discard data daily, interacting through the internet and with each interaction leaving tracks. And with ever increasing storage space, the reason to discard diminishes. There is very little point to Flickr ever deleting my account, no matter whether I'm alive or dead. Likewise LiveJournal. Why not let these words stand?

Then let the SemanticWeb kick in - Web3.0 (Or will it be WebN+1.0 in perpetuity - always one version higher than we already are?)

No matter - the web attracts meaning, attracts semantics. When the web starts working out that this person on Facebook is the same as that person on Livejournal and this person in Flickr then the shape of our immaterial memorial becomes clearer and clearer.

It seems I'm not the only person considering this. From the ever worthwhile TED.

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It's the 5 question thing all over again - [livejournal.com profile] rosamicula asked, and I answer:

1. What will you be like at fifty?

I honestly have no idea - if you'd asked me at the age of 30 what I was going to be like at 40 I'd have been wrong in almost every aspect so I'm loathe to put up too many hostages to fortune. But that's not really in the spirit of the meme, so here's some guesses.

I think there's a more than reasonable chance I'll still be single, or that there won't be one committed relationship. The longer I remain single, the more comfortable I become with that idea. I'll still be in London, and there's a reasonably good chance I'll be in the same job, or at least, with the same organisation. Probably still enjoying it.

What will I be like? More content than happy. More relaxed than angry. More calm than alone. More experienced and less bothered about what people think.

2. You can make one permanent change/enhancement to London. What would it be?

A complete smoking ban in all public places. I've yet to meet a considerate smoker so bollocks to the lot of them. Cigarette butts are the piece of litter I see most on the streets because the fuckers can't be bothered to tidy up after themselves.

3. You can go back in time to any point in your life and either say or unsay something to someone. What would it be?

"I guess I wasn't meant to see that post".

4. You have to live for three months in a country that isn't in Europe (I mean actual Europe, not the EU). Which one would you choose?

Assuming I could get over my crippling monolingualism, Japan. Specifically Kyoto if I get the choice. It's just beautiful there, and I'd happily spend more time there.
If I can't magically learn another language, the USA. I've seen the tiniest part of it (New York, New England and Boston) and there's a massive amount of it I still want to see. I think 3 months would be my limit though because the stories I've heard of health insurance woes over there scare me witless.

5. You can have a brief romance with anyone living or dead, fictional or real. Who would it be and why?

That answer changes day by day. At the moment, Björk, mainly because I've been listening to a track of hers called "Vökuró" from Medúlla, which reminds me very much of 'The Summer Book' and 'The Winter Book' by Tove Jansson. There's something about gentle melancholy which appeals, especially with the heat of summer upon us. And it's very different from much of her music, and seeing an unexpected side to someone you think you know well is attractive to.
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I spent much of my 30s clubbing, as many of you know. It was the way that I kept in touch with a lot of people, and the friendships I forged during that time are durable ones. All in all, it was very good for me. The first half of the decade I was attending clubs, partying away and having fun, and the second half I was more and more involved with helping to run one particular club. But even when I worked at Planet Angel, it was always Front of House, or event management. I never performed, never felt the need to get up in front of people. I never wanted to be a DJ.

Well, except once.

It's not surprising, really - my lack of desire to DJ. Firstly, I don't love dance music. Don't get me wrong - I enjoy listening to it in the right circumstances, and I appreciate the effort that DJs put in to choose just the right track for the dancefloor. I love the control that a DJ has - especially with Trance - where they can beatmatch tracks together seamlessly, moving from one song to another without a pause, raising and lowering the energy levels in a room, dragging the dancers along on a journey that won't let go of them. Trace, especially, is about guiding that journey, not interrupting it.

So I like dance music. But I don't love it. Even after all the clubs I've been to, I could probably identify a score of dance tracks. I don't listen to dance music the way that many of my friends do - it blends into one and I dance on, my inner shaman taking control.

That's the second reason. My friends. I'm lucky to know a lot of very good DJs, capable of playing a wide number of genres. They're able to read a room, surprise people, make them laugh with recognition or just grin in exultation, smiles bouncing off the walls with the strobe lights. A little while ago I was able to name 20 friends who are professional (as in, have been paid to play) DJs.

But there was once.

It was at Planet Angel, and it must have been 5 years ago. I was partying, and in the Meltdown Room, where the music tended to be Trance; four to the floor, constant, uplifting. Bright lights and neon clothing and smiles of recognition, welcome and friendship. One of my favourite dancefloors. Jurrane was about to go on - one of the Planet Angel resident DJs, and a lovely bloke. And just before he started playing, I bumped into him, and he said "I've got such a track to play tonight. I've really been looking forward to it!". And I smiled, and hugged him, and said that I hoped I'd recognise it.

"Oh", he said, "You'll know."

So time passed, and he took the decks, and for 30 minutes he seamlessly wove different tracks together. And I got lost in the moment and forgot what he'd said.

And then there was a second of silence.

You don't have silence in a trance room. Not intentionally. It breaks the rhythm, stops the flow. It brings people back from wherever they were.

Silence usually means something has gone wrong. Either the equipment has failed, or the DJ has just pressed the eject button instead of play and is currently trying to find the CD they've just spat onto the floor.

So the instance I heard silence, I looked at the DJ booth. What was wrong? Where was the problem?

And I saw Jurrane with the biggest grin on his face that I'd ever seen.

Bomm Bomm
Chik ... Chikka Chikka ....

It's a cliche to say that the room exploded; I know. But everyone had heard the pause. Everyone had stopped and was just working out that the music wasn't there when Yello's Oh, Yeah started. Some dance remix of it, of course; not the original. But that clip - as the friend who made me remember this today said - are there many tracks you can identify from so few words? - that clip had the room in an uproar.

It was a masterly performance - the pause, the fact that the 'Bomm Bomm' isn't until about 40 seconds into the track but it's the most identifiable bit so that's what got played.

The grin.

Jurrane knew. He knew we'd think he'd made a mistake. He knew that we'd instantly recognise the track. He knew we'd laugh out loud, bounce like furies and grin at everyone else in the room.

He knew, and when I saw that grin, I knew that he knew.

And that grin - despite my lack of musical talent. Despite my ignorance of dance music. Despite my complete lack of desire to perform.

That grin made me want to be a DJ. Just for a moment.
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Wednesday evening, my sister phoned. She'd been at my niece's dance show, and had bumped into someone I went to secondary school with, and who recognised my sister immediately. (My sister didn't recognise her, which lead to an interesting exchange.)

The upshot of the conversation and the reason for the phonecall was simple - Sophie (the old school friend in question) was organising a school reunion and hadn't been able to get in touch with me - could Nicola (the sister) pass on contact details to me?

She did, and I got in touch with Sophie - unfortunately it was with my apologies as there was no way I could get up to Telford on Friday, but to make contact more than anything else. As Nicola wasn't certain she'd written Sophie's email address down, I Googled for it and the world being what it is today, the second or third result was the Facebook event for the reunion.

My friends list on Facebook is slowly being populated with people I haven't seen for 24 years as we speak.

Its weird. These aren't people I've kept in touch with (more to do with my crapness about contact than about any desire for distance) but I'm now getting to see their virtual ghosts unfold as the venn diagrams of their lives and mine start to overlap.

There were photos taken of the reunion - a group of 40 year olds in a bar, dancing, talking, drinking, hugging. Some of them have obviously kept in touch over the last 24 years. Others have been tracked down in the last few weeks or months. Many of them have never moved away from Telford, or if they have, they've moved back.

The funny thing for me has been trying to peel back the years and see the child I knew in the adult represented on screen. Some I recognised immediately and can name - their faces matured but not really changed over time. Some I don't remember - especially the women where I don't have a clue today as to what their surname was back then. Some I recognise, their names on the tip of my forgetful tongue.

And some I remember but only recognise through the tags that someone else has added to the facebook photos. John Smith, in particular. Biffo was either an hour older than me or an hour younger - I can't remember now. But we shared a birthday, and were among the oldest in our class throughout our school years.

Biffo was one of the tallest in our class, I was always one of the shortest. I had mouse-brown hair, whereas his was so white that he was sometimes accused of being albino. We were both bright, both a bit geeky (not that we'd have used that term then) - we sat at the front of the bus rather than the back though. With Nic Hawkins, Andrew DeBanks, Jonathan Barnicott we got the same bus to school together, the same bus home.

We met in the first year of infants school, September 1974, and I last saw him in June 1986 on the day we went into school to pick up 'O' Level results. I pretty much saw him every day for the best part of 12 years, and yet when I look at the photos of him from Friday, I see absolutely no trace of the boy I knew.

I wonder what he thinks of the photos of me?


Mar. 31st, 2010 10:49 am
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There's a film out at the moment about a pilgrimage to Lourdes, which has won a lot of awards at various film festivals. I'd had in the back of my mind that I wanted to see it, and then I read this article in the Guardian this morning which has put me in two minds about it.

The journalist, Sara McCorquodale, talks about her experience of Lourdes as a "Holy Blackpool" and her experiences as she describes them certainly jibe with mine. Lourdes was a place to work hard, play hard. The 6am shifts? I remember them; getting up after an hour's sleep because there was no-way I was going to miss work, no matter how late I'd got to bed. The dullness of the overnight shifts - the medical staff in the hospitals were motivated and on the ball and we were, after all, volunteer hospital porters at that point. We were pushing people to the loo in wheelchairs as quietly as we could, with long gaps in between where the only conversations were whispers.

But I remember other things. I remember the heavy metal blue carriages that we would use to pull around pilgrims who couldn't walk. Not just in the Dominion - the area around the Grotto, nice and flat with wide paths and no vehicles to fight with - but also through the town up and down hills as we took people out to see the sights, to get lunch or a drink. I remember the heaviness of the metal handle - shaped like a spade handle. I remember trying to drag one of those uphill, and the relief I felt when the brancadier in the queue behind me reached out and pushed my carriage for a little while, even though they were also pulling one of their own. And I remember how that made me make sure that I could reach out and push the carriage of the person in front of me. My load had been lightened. Why shouldn't theirs?

I remember the camaraderie. I had my heart broken in holiday romances, and had my shoulder cried on as other's hearts were broken. I remember long and involved questions about faith and belief, both with those for whom the trip had reignited the fire in their heart, and with those for whom it extinguished it. I remember sitting in Le Carrefour - the bar by one of the bridges that was the Shrewsbury Diocese bar for the two weeks we were there, and having multilingual conversations with young brancardiers from across the world - often having to shout in English "Does anyone know the French for  ..." just as they were shouting something similar in French. I remember smiles being an acceptable substitute for vocabulary.

But most of all I remember the silence. Post pub, post shift, at 3am or 6am, before the day had really started, we would go into the Dominion - always with respect - your friends would be sure to mention if they thought you were too drunk or too loud to go - and we would sit on the slabbed area before the grotto, and we would just be quiet.

The Dominion was always quiet compared to the town. No vehicles, and people rarely talking above a murmur unless it was to sing. But at 3am there was silence. Companionable silence. I was always aware that my friends were nearby, and if I really needed to talk to someone then I could - we would withdraw a little so that we weren't disturbing anyone else, lie on the warm stone and talk. But more often than not, we would simply sit, quietly, and let the waves of the world wash away from us. I don't know that I've ever experienced the serenity of those moments since.

The film about Lourdes seems to have captured the bustle of the town, and the tension between faith and scepticism. My fear is that it won't have captured the calm.
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Yesterday was Ada Lovelace Day - I thought it was today. Byron's only legitimate daughter, and the world's first computer programmer. Fittingly, Ada Lovelace Day celebrates girl and women geeks the world over.

(I've just checked; according to http://findingada.com/ I can still post this as part of Ada Lovelace day - it is still March 24th in some part of the world. Geeks love bending rules.)

I was, at the age of 18, pretty much a know-it-all. (The cheap seats may remain quiet on this point.) I went to college and studied Librarianship, and right from the word go, knew that I wanted to focus on IT. This was in 1988 when that wasn't a given; computers weren't ubiquitous and at Manchester Polytechnic at the time, the Library School had the largest computing labs outside of the Computing and Engineering departments.

My first year of IT was a disaster. I was being taught by a lecturer called Peter Stephens, and he was a Local Studies Librarian; a field that even in 1988 was dying - few libraries were employing such specialists, and even fewer students were signing up for his cohort. So rather than making him redundant, he got shunted sideways into IT teaching. And I was in the unfortunate position of knowing more than him about his chosen subject, with the sort of personality that didn't really do very well at hiding that. I probably owe him a huge amount of apologies for being such a brat. On the other hand, his response to me finishing all his exercises early was to exile me to the Terminal room (logging onto mainframe rather than execution) so I "didn't distract anyone else".

My second year, though, I signed up for the IT Cohort, under Jennifer Rowley. She was an IT specialist, and very well regarded internationally thus. Her book, "Information Technology for Libraries", was our textbook for the year, and is still in print today. And our first class with her was using a desk top publishing program called Timeworks.

Now, the 80s being the 80s, my dad got made redundant a couple of times, and in one case, was working for a magazine when it went bankrupt. As part of his pay from the bankrupt magazine, he brought home an Atari 1040ST with Timeworks installed, which is what they were using for page layout. So I'd been using this software for about 2 years when I sat in on Jenny Rowley's first class.

I raced through the exercises. There wasn't anything that she had in there that I hadn't done, and I knew all the concepts that she was talking about because I'd actually read the instruction manual. For a class that was supposed to take 2 hours, I was done in 15 minutes.

She noticed, of course. I hadn't reached the fidgety stage yet, but I was definitely not working. So she came over and asked what was up.

"I know this", I said. "I've used this software before, and I've finished the exercises."

And then I waited to be sent out of the room again.

Instead, she asked me a few questions about Timeworks. How had I achieved this effect? What could I do to achieve this desired end. And then she pointed to half of the class.

"That half of the room? Yours. Answer any questions they have. Help them where you can. If you don't know the answer, don't make something up - say so, come and ask me, and I'll tell you. And if I don't know, we'll work it out together."

That's pretty much the conversation that started me on my career as a trainer, and which pretty much still encapsulates my attitude in a training room. Help if you can, and if you can't, admit it, and then find out together.

Professor Jennifer Rowley is still at Manchester Metropolitan University, still publishing, and, I devoutly hope, still inspiring cocky know-it-all students today.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day, Jenny!
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There was a woman on the train today wearing a parka; one of the old green army coats made popular by Mods. I've seen her a couple of times wearing the same coat, and thought nothing of it until today, when she got off the train before me and I saw that the parka had a fishtail.

I guess the fish-tailed parka was the first item of clothing I was aware of being 'designed' - during my childhood clothing was something you just wore. Maybe the teeshirt had a funny picture on it. Maybe the jumper was in one of those patterns that only a mother could love. But it all seemed a little bit incidental to my life. Clothing was something that happened to you, not that was a series of conscious choices.

The Punk Wars passed Shropshire by. We had, at best, the Minor Punk Contretemps. I knew one punk when I was a teenager - he was called Nick Tooth (his actual name) and I played Dungeons and Dragons with him on a Sunday afternoon; hardly, if you'll forgive the phrase, rock and roll. We may have had Mods in the 80s, but I wasn't very aware of them. Rockers? There was one pub in Wellington that smelled of wee ... actually, there were several pubs in Wellington that stank of urine, but there was one in particular that had that greebo odour, but this was before I was really going out to pubs, so it wasn't part of my mental landscape. Even the skinheads were few and far between - I guess most of them were up in Stafford with Shane Meadows at the time.

I guess what I'm saying is that during my early teens, dressing to identify myself with a particular genre of music wasn't really something I felt the need to do - partly because I just wasn't that much of an adherent of any one genre, and partly because none of my friends did either. The tribes I was a member of during the early 80s were all far less focussed than that.

But I had a parka.

It hadn't been bought for fashionable reasons. In fact, I hadn't bought it and certainly hadn't paid for it. My mum bought me my parka, and I have no idea why. She'd got it when we were visiting relatives in Ireland and decided that I needed a new coat.

The parka was a rubbish coat. Too thin to keep warm, not particularly water resistant. A big (because of course, I'd "grow into it"), shapeless green bag.

And the first item of clothing I ever wore which almost got me beaten up twice.

Because while most of the Skins were in Stoke, not all of them were. And on two separate occasions I remember getting stopped by scary lads with shaved heads and beautifully polished oxblood 18 hole Doc Martens, and them demanding to know if I "was a Mod?". Demanding with menaces, as the Theft Act of 1968 quite poetically puts it.

And this is where the lady on the train kicked off this particular stream of memories this morning. Because back when I was 13 or 14, I knew almost nothing about the Mods. I hadn't yet seen Leslie Ash in a Brighton back alley in Quadrophenia. If you'd said "Who are The Who?" I'd have thought you were doing a particularly bad owl impression. But I knew one thing about Mods.

And with that particular calm born of naiveté, on both occasions I turned to my interrogators and said "No - because Mod parkas have a fishtail."

And I walked off letting them see that, in fact, my cheap, Irish knock off parka was indeed sans le queue du poisson - bereft of the fish tail.

And while kingdoms may have been lost for want of a nail; beatings have also been avoided for want of a tail.
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I have work I should be doing; this of course explains why I'm reading through Livejournal posts instead. But it's been good for me - 2008 was in many ways a year of stasis - I don't feel that I achieved a lot. 2009 has been much better, in oh so many ways.

So, in no particular order, here are the high-points of my year, presented as a playlist.

1. Cabaret - Natasha Richardson
2. Gabriel - Lamb
3. Allelujah - Fairground Attraction
4. Glass - Bat for Lashes
5. Jet Lag - Frank Turner
6. Ampersand - Amanda Palmer
7. Music for a Found Harmonium - Penguin Cafe Orchestra
8. Mr. Brightside - The Killers
9. The Water is Wide - Cowboy Junkies
10. White Wine in the Sun - Tim Minchin
11. Home for a Rest - Spirit of the West
12. Knights of Cydonia - Muse
13. Tubular Bass - Cellardore
14. Adagio for Strings - William Orbit (Ferry Corstin remix)
15. Gorecki - Lamb
16. To Take You Home - Frank Turner

And you can listen to most of that at Spotify if you'd like :-)

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My Livejournal has just clocked over the 7 year mark, having been started on 8th April, 2002.

That's the entirety of my life in London documented, as I moved here in July of that year.

1318 entries (including this one) - some profound, some meaningful, some trivial. Some all three. (I can but hope).

There's a record of my writing here, and of a relationship from start to finish. There's the glory that was the New World Order.

There's highs, there's lows.

I don't think I've kept a diary in any other form for anywhere near as long.

Edit to add: And there's an awful lot of people I think I would have lost touch with if it hadn't been for LJ, especially after I stopped LRPing. And that would have been a very bad thing.
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"...Not very long ago, in the top left-hand corner of Wales, there was a railway.  It wasn't a very long railway or a very important railway, but it was called The Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company Limited, and it was all there was.
And in a shed, in a siding at the end of the railway, lives the Locomotive of the Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company Limited, which was a long name for a little engine so his friends just called him Ivor..."

Those of you who have been to my flat may well remember I have a large-ish wooden dragon, with a slightly chewed tail (Richter went through a chewing phase ...). That dragon's name is Idris. I think that's a measure of the hold that Oliver Postgate has on the childhood of so many people I know. We all have our favourites; Bagpuss, the Clangers, Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine; so many good hearted creations to come from two men - Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate.

Postgate was more than a children's storyteller, important though that role is. Like most writers, he felt the need to observe and report on what was happening in the world; in his own inimitable style. Here's a quote from his website, written in 2007.

"The Devil shook his head in disbelief. He said: “Where were you? You know that thousands of very important and well-informed people were saying - in fact shouting in his ear -  that to go in and lay waste to Iraq was likely to have just the sort of consequences that it has had. So although President Bush can take the view that the bloody carnage going on there is an “unintended” consequence, it was definitely not an “unforeseen” consequence. It was amply, lavishly, foreseen, and that makes it different in kind from a mistake or a piece of mental inattention, different because the carnage is clearly the result of an actual refusal to see the situation that was most likely going to result from his action. And his reason for refusing to see or care about it was that all he wanted was to be seen to be doing something grand and grandiose after nine-eleven. That was his intended consequence.”"

Reading through the website, I found out something I didn't know - much of the profits from Bagpuss merchandising over the years went to a Children's Hospice in Romania - http://www.hospiceofhope.co.uk/ - it has a Bagpuss Wing, and, as is so often the case, needs continuing funding. If you wish to, there's a link to the Bagpuss appeal on the Hospice website.

Finally, because a post about Oliver Postgate shouldn't, can't be all doom and gloom; I have found and downloaded two audio files today; the Ivor the Engine theme tune, and the noise of Ivor's engine psst-koff as he goes up the hill. I'll be changing my mobile phone to use both of them for a while. I'm looking forward to people recognising them and, hopefully, smiling at the memories they bring.

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