Looking Forward to 2014

Writing this in a hurry on New Year’s Eve, having just remembered it is actually a Tuesday, I cannot help think that for me at least this has been a so-so year. Last year, 2012 was a weird mixture of great and the terrible, but last year… Well, nothing really bas new happened to me and it won’t go down as a classic. But then I am not sure I am the age now that the roller coaster rides than years can be is well suited. So maybe I will let my younger friends experience this for now and I’ll move a bit slower.

So what are my hopes for 2014?

Well, first off that the people I love are safe and those who are ill or under pressure from any source of attack find improvement and relief. I have several friends and family who are in that class and I hope that this time next year things look better for everyone one way or another.

For me though, I need to sort some stuff out that has been hanging around for too long. And I am not just talking about our pond, although that is one of the easier things to deal with. I need to start shedding a few pounds and a few bad habits, and we all know how difficult the latter one is. The problem with bad habits is that they are habits because we like doing them. But some are just not sustainable and need to change. For example, like a lot of people of my age I drink more than I should; and I am a terrible hoarder, so not only do I need to stop collecting stuff, I need to (shakes with horror) get rid of some of the stuff that has accumulated over the years and I know perfectly well I will never look at again… But its mine, you see. Sigh. This is going to be harder than it sounds.

Positively though there is much to look forward to this year, and I want to try and drag some of the holiday feeling from Christmas and New Year through the year, at least personally; I like this time of year but tomorrow is always a down day for me, and not just because of the late night and sore head. It is just that a lot of the nice things from the holiday season sort of evaporate, and while I don’t wish it could be Christmas every day at would be nice to have a little celebratory thing to look forward to each month… So let’s see how that goes.

I want to keep writing, and start experimenting with longer forms. I have been producing a short story a week all year and found it extremely enjoyable; some of my tiny readership seems to have liked them too (although as they are incredibly nice, maybe they are just being nice). But increasingly I am finding that some of the continuing threads I have need to go more to the novella format to do them justice so time to try and find the time to increase the word count while maintaining my Friday fiction club.

Part of that will have to wait until after the end of April when I – with luck – finish my Open University Humanities degree; it has been about five years and I have learned a lot about things and myself in that time. I’m very much looking forward to possibly graduating sometime this year. I was inspired to do it by a friend and I’ve never regretted it (although to do essays and exams “for fun” is truly weird).

The other significant event for me this year is of course our tenth anniversary – and if I am going to achieve anything at all useful this year it is with the support of the Lovely Wife. I’ve no idea what we are going to do to celebrate (it is her turn to organise) but I know it will be fun, because she will be there.

And, as always, I need to try and be there to encourage and support my friends – young and old – where I can. Love you all, and Happy New Year.


Jumping into Christmas

Recently the Lovely Wife and I were in Coventry – a surprisingly charming city – and had a few hours to kill, so we thought we would do a little window shopping.

In Coventry city centre there is one shop building that dominates the area known as Broadgate, opposite the statue of Lady Godiva.

It is a giant Primark, at least three floors of cheap clothing (so really Lady Godiva has no excuse for her nakedness) and it was heaving, it being a Saturday near to Christmas.

I had a particular mission in mind. It was to peruse the selection of Christmas jumpers available and to see just how awful they could really be.

Last year I noticed that there was a bit of a silly Christmas jumper thing going on but refrained from buying one. But I mentioned it to the Lovely Wife and she offered to knit me one for this year. Then she made the mistake of asking me to choose the subject matter (other than having some form of Christmas feeling to it, obviously).

Of course, it had to be a penguin theme.  But it had to be a proper penguin, not one of these wide eyed, round birds wearing red hats that bear no resemblance to the bird in question. Undaunted, the Lovely Wife tracked down some 1970s patterns including one of an Emperor penguin and chick.

Well, I was sold straight away on that.

You see, an Emperor penguin is a man’s penguin. Male Emperors are the hard men of the bird world. No other creature is quite hardcore enough to face the Antarctic winter with the rest of the lads, while carefully babysitting their little offspring, while all the girls go off to warmer climes and stuff their faces for the entire winter.

If I’m going to have a penguin on my chest it is going to be this fine example of parenthood.

The process of creation of this bespoke Christmas jumper was a painful one – including a hiatus where an unpicking of the work to date almost resulted in abandonment of the project completely – but in the end the jumper was complete and glorious, and in time for Christmas.

Although it does, on reflection, have a lot of white in the design which considering my enthusiastic eating style does mean extra care. But I’m very proud of it and of the creativity and graft of the Lovely Wife.

So I knew this when we went into Primark and there was no chance that even the £12 price tag was going to tempt a garish Rudolf onto my chest any more than I was going to buy a Rudolf onsie (I already have one from last year anyway).

But we were not disappointed with, ahem, quality. A lot of the specimens in the messy piles of jumpers available were quite dreadful. It was interesting to note too that the taste and cost go hand in hand in this genre; the less tacky and more reasonable ones (including the subgenre that you might describe as merely festive, with snowflakes and the like rather than characters off a cheap advent calendar) were almost double the price (horror).

However, I am not going to be too hard on the Christmas jumper. There is one thing that we need to be thankful for.

It is only for Christmas.

Come the New Year they will go in the charity shops and/or boxes in the loft and the bad dress sense will return to normal, ahem, style (i.e. boys with half slung trousers that can therefore hardly walk, girls who think tights can be worn without the aid of a skirt or shorts etc. Feel free to add your own “What are you thinking?” example).

But I am very fond of my penguins.

If the weather gets very icy and cold, I might just use it to take a little bit of Christmas into the barren wasteland that is January to eke out the season just a little bit.

But for now, have a lovely Christmas, one and all.

The choir of children did not, I think, practice all year long

Now that we are well into Advent this year’s batch of Christmas themed records are coming out on a more or less daily basis.

 Bit of an odd bunch this year; I kind of get the feeling you have to take turns (unless you are Cliff Richard) to bring out a Christmas song (or worse, an entire album).

 So last year we had Rod Stewart and Ceelo Green, and Michael Bublé (or that might have been the year before, I have more important things in my life than to research that) and this year we have Leona Lewis.

 We can add to that singles from the ubiquitous Bellowhead who seem to be competing with Lilly Allen in the wall to wall presence stakes.

 On the subject of Mrs Cooper, we see before our eyes the elevation of a song with nothing at all to do with Christmas to the status of inclusion in every “Greatest Christmas Album in the World… Ever!’ from this point onwards with that (now annoying) John Lewis advert.

 The best example before this is probably ‘The Power of Love; back in the 80s, a clever bit of marketing by Frankie Goes to Hollywood to secure their third and final number one.

 At least that song means that fearsome tormentor of Penelope Pitstop – the Hooded Claw –gets an unlikely shout out each year to an increasing series of blank looks from people you are far too young to get the slightly obscure reference. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMtA8ahAwDI

 But I have to confess I like Christmas records. With Eurovision no longer as big a deal as perhaps what it once was, it is about the only place we are going to get songs that are either overly cheerful or sarcastic or sad (never subtle) that then allow many artists to get that bit of silly nonsense out of their creativity zone and hopefully go back to proper music for the rest of the year.

 I think everyone has their pet hates, and although they might not admit it, the few they quite like. Personally, I am a Slade fan; I look forward now to Radcliffe and Maconie’s radio show on 6Music just before Christmas as now it is tradition for Noddy Holder to come on to scream “It’s Christmas!” to officially open the festivities of the season.

 I also have a soft spot for ‘Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy’ from back in 1977.

 However, I am not sure that this is purely for listening to the most unlikely duo in pop history. In recent years I discovered the original film version from a Bing Crosby Christmas special, an atrocious and therefore hysterically funny presentation which has David Bowie turns up at some stately home to exchange stilted dialogue before launching into an impromptu duet. As you do. Apart from the staged nature of the whole thing it is quite obvious that the senior party has no idea (and no interest in) who David Bowie is. Treat yourself.


The only other Christmas video that makes me laugh so much is the Darkness’ Christmas Time (Don’t let the bells end) although that one should be viewed rarely due to the disturbing content.


 New “classics” don’t seem to come along that often and most of them just seem to get (thankfully?) forgotten. Being a huge artist helps with longevity… George Michael’s ‘December Song’ and Coldplay’s ‘Christmas Lights’ seem to be hanging on there for example. Some I hope survive through just being of a higher quality, such as Thea Gilmore’s wonderful ‘That’ll be Christmas’ from (can I really believe it is that long ago?) 2009.


 The one Christmas song I will recommend if you are in the buying mood this year is by 90s band Dodgy. The song is “Christmas down at the Food bank” raising money for the Trussell Trust who provides that service. At a time of so much gluttony for most in the UK, seems a small price to pay to help feed the poorest in our own society and, well, the song could be worse I suppose.

 Look for it in the usual download-y places.

Where have all the cars come from?

I am trying hard to get into the Christmas cheer this year and getting there slowly – the ritual of the erection and decoration of the Christmas tree helped of course. The weather refuses to behave in a proper winter fashion and makes me think it is still October.

And the Christmas music is not, yet, wall to wall, although it will be soon driving me up one I am sure.

What is keeping me away from the Christmas cheer most of all is the traffic.

I have moaned about the M25 before now. It is a bit of an easy target and it is the Road to Hell (aah, my Chris Rea love comes through, or indeed a giant satanic prayer wheel if the excellent and hilarious Good Omens – go read it, you’ll never look at a sherbert lemon in the same way again – is to be believed). Last year, in the run up to the Olympics there was a delicious period when the road had been widened considerably in preparation for the games and suddenly each journey seemed smooth and swift. Gradually, over the intervening months, the level of traffic has slowly crept up and up however, and the capacity has been filled. In fact, in over ten years of grinding out my thirty mile commute to work it has never been this bad, especially in the mornings.

The worse thing about it for me is not the time wasted stuck in a slow moving jam, or boredom – I’m a good radio and podcast listener so I can catch up with things I would otherwise miss. I can think about new short story ideas (though I am usually too tired to write them down when I eventually crawl into the office) or even (gasp) think about work.

Nor is it the waste of fuel (although that does concern me and the hybrid does help a bit).

No, the thing that I hate the most is what this does to me personally. When eventually I get out of the queue of traffic my level of patience with my fellow drivers is an all time low. I refuse to let people out (even the pretty girls) when normally it would be with a smile and a wave. I drive too close to the old dears who for some insane reason have decided to take the road at the same time as everyone else is, instead of sensibly waiting to a quieter time.

Finally, when I do get into the office or home, I am in a foul mood ready to snap the head of any unfortunate who may stray into my path before hot cup of tea or a stiff gin can begin the transition away from the malicious, twisted troll I have become and back into my preferred incarnation of bemused puppy.

I was thinking about it this yesterday as I stomped into the office, slammed my bag down and aggressively plugged in the laptop. I am still thinking about it now, having had the cathartic experience of writing this. In the end, with anything you want to change, you have to really want to do it and make some effort.  At least I can recognise the problem, and will try and stay away from becoming a road ogre in future.

But I am looking forward intensely to the days when our situation means I do not have to do this commute every again.

For now I have to rely on happier things; on a lovely wife, great friends, a snowman made out of gingerbread and marshmallow for lunch and the knowledge that, once again, The Christmas Duck will be tied helplessly to the top of a tree for a few weeks. And tied pretty tightly poor thing; the journey home wasn’t great either.

Still, the tree is now flashing (if leaning somewhat worryingly) and  after a morale boosting watch (OK, quote along) of The Princess Bride (and yes, it is a Christmas movie too, which we only realised last year, Fred Savage’s bedroom has all sorts of Christmas decorations up) and I’m finally feeling a bit more seasonal.

Time to dig out my sleigh bells I feel (not joking, my lovely wife is rolling her eyes as she reads this…)

Past and Presents

I have always enjoyed Advent. I find it a little odd as from a Christian tradition this is a time of preparation for the festival and feasting of Christmas, but unlike Lent, which is much the same for Easter (at least in theory) where those who observe go through fasting and deprivation of some sort of another, Advent seems to be an excuse to do exactly the opposite. As a child, I had no problem with that. I don’t have a problem now, but I do find it funny. I guess at this increasingly dark time of year chocolate is more comforting than fasting, while at Easter we are looking increasingly at the late spring and summer to keep us cheerful.

I guess the only problem I do have is that the slow build up to Christmas allows for a rise in excitement which makes coming down the other side – once the presents are opened, the turkey consumed and everyone is asleep in front of the Queen (well that was how it worked in my childhood) – that much more depressing.

At least these days I have a Doctor Who special to look forward to.

But while it lasts I used to enjoy the build up that Advent presented. I was terribly spoilt though. As an only child of a giving set of parents I was not limited to a mere Advent calendar and a piece of chocolate supposedly shaped into a robin or a snowman or whatever (honestly, who are they fooling?). No. I had my very only Santa every day.

Well strictly speaking it was “Little Santa”, either to differentiate from the real one or as some kind of nod to dear Little Ted (who is still lurking around the house, Big Ted having been relegated to the box that where toys that you cannot bear – ho ho ho – to part with but could be blown apart by a minor draft lie in perpetuity). Little Santa was made of a toilet roll, red felt and cotton wool. More impressive was Rudolf, who also started life in the toilet but even had twig antlers (nice touch, mum).

From as early a time as I can remember they would be standing out on the snow field – OK, the piece of cardboard with more cotton wool stuck on it – from December 1st. Little Santa was never without his own little hessian sack. And in the sack, joy of joys, a perfectly wrapped little Christmas present, with the date stuck on it with tape.

Every morning as I listened in vain to the radio in the hope that my school would be closed in the inclement North East weather (it wasn’t, as it happens. It never was. To the youth I know – I have no sympathy for a lack of Snow days whatsoever) I could at least have the consolation of something wrapped up for me. Alright, we are usually talking the level of a packet of Refreshers, but a present is a present. As any child knows, the more presents, however small they might be, the better. After all, most kids do not understand the concept of money anyway so why waste cash on something ridiculously expensive if you can get them in to paroxysms of excitement with a whole mountain of junk you bought in Wilkinson’s for a tenner (in total)?

Save your money for when they are in their teens and they actually start to be more selective.

Actually I think my daily Advent present probably generated more Christmas excitement than the day itself, present wise. Possibly because I felt I was getting something unique when others only had misshapen chocolate fragments. Possibly because my dad always threatened that the only present I would get on Christmas day was a matchbox with Smarties in it. I usually got that as well, although thankfully there was always a pile of other stuff.

I still enjoy Advent, although Little Santa (and Rudolf) is long gone. Now we have the Christmas Lemur (he’s actually Irish, but you wouldn’t know) and he never has anything for me, but that is fine. I have always enjoyed the giving rather than the receiving and I have my lovely parents to thank for that, for teaching me that giving is something which does not always need a lot of money, but does need a lot of heart.

Let us just back up now for a minute (well, quite a few minutes, but it’s worth it)

It was a momentous weekend. Everything changed and had to be reassessed. The past will never quite be the same and the future will look a little different, because of the events that happened this weekend.
Unfortunately, I am not talking about the 50th anniversary Doctor Who special, which thankfully lived up pretty much to expectations (and look out for the “Five Doctors(ish) Reboot” spoof; even the Lovely Wife found that hilarious and she doesn’t get all the in jokes).
Nor am I not talking about the true beauty of the Dalek cupcakes that appeared from nowhere to invade first the kitchen and then my stomach.
No. It was the weekend when the Daleks were not the only user of technology that ended up destroyed.
I operate out of two laptops – a work and a home one. Both had hard disk crashes this weekend, apparently entirely coincidentally. I was not impressed.
I was even less impressed when my iPhone decided to commit suicide by refusing to charge, no matter what I tried. As I watched the battery slowly dropping, the increasingly frustrating idiot (I am sorry, but he was) on the end of the phone waffled his way through the blatantly obvious stuff before thirty minutes later coming to the conclusion it was probably a software problem and I should talk to Apple. So I can get the software upgraded. Well thank you. Now the battery is dead, so how am I supposed to do that now, young man, hmm? (Just channelling a bit of First Doctor there, you understand).
So that’ll be a new phone then. Sigh.
Now back to the laptops. Well, the home one is a pain but that would have to be replaced at some point in the next few months anyway. And, I hear you say, well, the work one is your Companies problem. They can just replace it, right?
Well, yes. They can give me a new hard drive. But those of you who might be IT focussed are holding their head in their hands and shaking it sadly.
I last backed up the computer at the end of 2011.
That’s almost two years of data that now is inaccessible (well, unless you want to pay a fortune to a specialist).
I am a little cross with myself.
Now it is not a huge disaster. An awful lot of what is important to me has been sent to others and can be got back from them, or I can get out of my sent folder. My blog fiction is gone, but it is all still on the blog… So I can rescue that too. One story that was just being prepared will never be told in the original form; I have to persuade myself to have the enthusiasm to rewrite it.
But if I had backed up properly, this would have been a hundred times less painful and catching back up a lot easier.
I wonder if as you read this, a little voice is asking politely (or not, I have no idea how the voices in your head work, but let’s assume they are polite) when you last backed up your own data… I suspect it is not recently.
So let me encourage you to do it. Do it now.
And if you don’t have a back up, what are you thinking? Get someone to buy you an external hard disk at Christmas and celebrate protecting your work with a mince pie and a small sherry this holiday season.
Trust me. Unlike the Doctor I cannot mess around with the Space/Time Continuum and prevent disaster.
You can.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll want to settle down, until tomorrow…

I miss the Littlest Hobo. He could have licked Lassie any day.

I was kind of amused to get an email this week from the owners of this platform reminding me that it was, I quote, due to expire. I was in a hurry doing other things and thought ’well I must get back to that urgently, as I am quite enjoying this’ and promised myself I would do just that at the earliest opportunity. So I logged on at the weekend and read the message again. It expires in three months. Three months. How many other things, let’s be honest, do I have to deal with before actually this becomes any kind of priority? Yes, lots.
Not the worst case of this kind of thing I have seen. That I would level at BBC Countryfile magazine, which started warning me that my subscription was “due to expire” half way through… Funnily enough it has expired now. I guess that is what you get if you cry wolf.
But now I have three months to actually think about whether to consider waffling on this platform or not. So maybe I should be thankful for the premature nature of the warning.
I am not very good at change or moving on, or indeed bringing things to an end. I tend to run shoes until the sole is a mere sliver of rubber forcing me to skip between puddles as they have not been waterproof for sometime… Cars I have a tendency to run into the ground rather than change at a reasonable time (I get used to them).
The same attitude I have generally applied to work.
I have been here with the same company now for twenty one years, half my existence on this planet. For most of that time, I have not thought about moving on and trying something new. I have just been glad to have a job that I (mostly) liked and that (sometimes) changed a bit and so kept the interest up
It still does, although recent events have certainly made me look at things a little more cynically than would normally come naturally to me. But the consistency is something that has made me comfortable. If that is nice and stable, the rest of my life can be a bit more adventurous. I’m lucky too that I have a lovely wife to provide yet another anchor, as otherwise I am very much a ship tossed about in a storm.
The stability at work thing is not the case for others I know, who can get restless very quickly for one reason or another. They don’t want to stagnate, or miss opportunities, and quite like the element of risk in jumping – if not into the unknown, then perhaps into the uncertain.
Some career training I was once involved with talked about the attitude and type of person you might be in the workplace. It was one tool that helped me understand my attitude to work and why my perspective seemed to differ from others.
It can be helpful to understand what your attitude might be as part of (and only part of) considering what is best for you personally at the present time and, importantly, over time as well.
People forget sometimes that what they want in life will usually change as you get older, as get married maybe, drop offspring or come across something that just drives more than those things you thought would motivate you when you were a bit younger. What someone in their fifties may be looking for is not necessarily the same as someone in their twenties. These attitudinal categories broke down into five broad buckets (I am sure you have seen these before is some form or another):
Getting ahead – constantly looking for promotion and/or more responsibility and thrives on recognition.
Security – wants stability, predictability, progression related to loyalty.
Freedom – craves independence, needs to be in control of their career and likes to be the expert.
Balance – Trying to have a bit of everything and very much focused on work as only part of the deal – important, but part of a mosaic.
High – cannot get enough of their job, committed and cause driven. Work those long hours not because they think they need to, but because they want to.
Of course all of these can apply to someone at any one time, but at times some or other of them might dominate, others be less important. And if there is a mismatch between the attitudes that currently dominate and the job you currently have, it is not going to be a happy experience. Where do you think you are?
Personally I tend to bottom out in the security/balance area as comments above might indicate. But I enjoy recognition too (who doesn’t, although how public it is can definitely be polarizing). The high side of things, mostly, comes in the stuff I do on a voluntary basis outside work.
So I am unlikely to want change any time soon, and as I get older, probably even less so. But as I have said to several people recently, they have to look at their own life and decide what to do. Because only they really know what is going to make them feel good about their work.
For me, I’m staying where I am. Well, all my stuff’s here anyway.

Sorry, Professor Cox, I don’t love you.

I am of course horribly excited about fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who next week. However, my heart sank at one aspect. There is a programme this week on the science of Doctor Who (itself a bit of a nonsensical idea as the series has always been Science Fantasy, but let’s put that aside for a moment). What my heart sank at was that it was going to be presented – and yes, this is no surprise – by Professor Brian Cox.
I do not know what it is about the former member of 90s group D:REAM that winds me up so much. In small doses, or when I have seen him talk live (as I had the privilege to do at the End of the World show at Hammersmith last year, where he was by far the best thing on the bill) – he can be fascinating and captivating (if that is not too tautological). But on the screen and stretched beyond ten minutes I just want to punch him.
Which I found quite disturbing as there are relatively few people who do have that effect on me (thankfully no one I would call an actual acquaintance!).
So is it his opinions that grate on me?; well no, I would not say I agree with everything he says but generally I usually find him a moderate and sensible voice as befits people who should have so much mainstream media time. (Leave the people on the wings for specialist debates where people might be better informed, that’s a subject for another day). Is it some case of misplaced professional jealousy? No I don’t think so, I’ve never wanted to be in the greater public eye and Professor Cox is simply cleverer than me (an easy concept to grasp after my education where from the age of 11 I seemed to have been surrounded by the brighter and more talented).
Is it the weird pop star background? I don’t think it is that either. Mixing science and music is hardly uncommon; I know some wonderful young scientists who I would be happy to spend hours with who are gifted both in their academic and artistic talents. One of my childhood heroes was the late Sir Patrick Moore, and I’m old enough to remember him savagely tearing through some presenter intent to dumb down some astronomical event and then soon afterwards seeing him fly across the xylophone with obvious relish.
No, nothing so profound, I am afraid. Sadly it is that voice. And not even the voice per se, but that voice on film and in narration. It is something as pathetic as that and I am a bit shamed by it. But there is just something in the timbre, in that tone that some I am sure some people find they could listen to for hours, that makes me just want to switch off. It must be something in my nature, my background. Maybe I just want all narrators to sound like Tom Baker; or Sir David.
I think we have a lot of these irrational hang-ups. Some of them we share with others. My lovely wife and I (and others I know) find Jeremy Vine the presenter on BBC 2 impossible to listen to and not only because he hosts that most detestable of radio shows, a “phone in”. I say that because personally I remember listening to the presenter Alan Robson on Metro radio with his Night Owls programme under the covers as a child, but perhaps because the irreverent Geordie never took the calls remotely seriously helped mediate the ill informed tirades of drunken idiots in my adolescent mind and did not distort it to the point I actually thought it was worth listening to the people and phased them out in time for the inevitable gentle sarcasm.
So I apologise Professor Cox. It is nothing personal and I wish you all the success you deserve for bringing science to a generation of young people (good thing!) that do not have my prejudices (bad thing!). And will I be watching the programme broadcast on Thursday – yes, of course I will. And I will probably enjoy it because the basic subject matter is too close to my heart. Oh and just you know there are no hard feelings, set your timers for: http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/proginfo/2013/46/the-science-of-doctor-who.html
But Jeremy Vine is not welcome in our house except for normal civil respect (no one should be ever turned away really), unless he leaves his phone behind and brings his much funnier brother. And lets Tim do the talking (in dumb one liners no doubt).

Time Travel in Coventry

This weekend I was reminded once more how lucky I am.
When I travel on business I do not access to huge expense accounts but I can usually rely on accommodation in a perfectly decent, standard business hotel. These are the places with pretty tedious decor, but safe enough and a feeling that someone has cleaned it at some point that week. It does not matter where you are in the world, they all look much the same – not surprising considering it is a business dominated by a few huge companies. I would never pay money to stay in one on personal travel – unless those business visits had earned me enough points for a free room. They are all a bit grossly overpriced, even for the real price you pay, rather than the rack rates. In fact, isn’t it funny how large the rack rates are, that list of the supposed room prices behind the bored receptionist? Does anyone really ever pay those?
The rack rates for the hotel I stayed in last Saturday in Coventry were around £150. Considering what things eventually looked like I think those rates could best be described as “aspirational”.
I paid £30. I got what I paid for.
I was well impressed. I knew what I was letting myself in for when I booked it. From the point my key was handed to me by the girl at reception (yes, she was bored) I knew I was going to have a true British hotel experience.
The first problem is finding your room, through a warren of institution themed corridors and random fire doors. This is “private” hotel classic challenge number one. Often the buildings were never meant to be a hotel, or have been extended in such a random unplanned way over the years that a certain degree of randomness is inevitable. When I used to design dungeons for roleplaying I don’t think that the same lack of logic and complexity was applied to the architecture.
But eventually I made it to room 28.
I walked into room 28 (their ‘only single room’, I was told in a drone by the receptionist) and fell through a gap in the Space/Time continuum. Suddenly I was in the 1970s.
My eyes quickly adjusted to the browns and beiges and I took in this grotto that was to be my home for one night. Yes, to my delight there was a sheet and a blanket on the bed. Yes, a blanket! No comfy duvets here, just a good old fashioned itchy coarse blanket, just like the one I used to cower under as a child from the monsters in the dark (with only my soft toys to defend me). Except tonight, I would be on my own.
Better still, next to the bed was one of those strange built in entertainment units (translation: Radio) from the 70s. Huge and bulky, and utterly useless, I do not think these were ever seen outside hotel rooms. I have to admit, I did not try to see if it still worked. They never did in the day and I did not want to spoil the effect with a hissing burst of Radio 2.
I walked over to the window (the air conditioning was set to cool, as the window was open) and looked out at the vandalised yard with its adorning graffiti. I felt a momentary disappointment that Banksie had not visited this location. Instead, several persons yet to have their art fully appreciated by The Establishment had covered the walls with interesting language and pictures that may have been rude had they not been so badly drawn or spelt.
But the true triumph was the bathroom.
It continued the theme not only by being mostly in brown but also by the fact it had clearly not been cleaned since about 1976.
Half the tiles had come off the walls and they had just painted the wall black (well, to be fair, they probably have not made these tiles for about twenty years). The mould was rampant. The toilet was not working properly (I won’t go into details) and the toilet seat was fixed incorrectly so… Let’s just say that the application of cold porcelain is not the most pleasant experience I can list.
So, why am I feeling lucky?
Apart from the retro experience, the unpleasantness of the whole thing reminded me of the fact that this is not every day for me. Too many people in this country live in conditions worse than this all the time and do not have an escape back to St Albans suburbia. And when we look beyond our borders the lack of a perfectly functioning toilet is something you have to live with every day and not have the luxury to leave it to the staff to sort. It is good to be reminded sometimes, as we do have the ability to do something about it.
But at least there was tea and coffee making facilities.

( As an aside, if you are in Coventry, do go to the Herbert Museum and Art Gallery to see the temporary exhibition by Gerald Scarfe; it is some of his work to illustrate the walls of mental health and maternity wards for the Nightingale Project and is uplifting, full of emotion, cleverness and humour.)

I want to tell you a story

Something very special happened to me a couple of weeks ago, which has not happened to me for many years.
Someone read a bedtime story to me.
Alright, it was not just to me (it was to a couple of thousand plus people) and I was sitting in a chair in Westminster Central Hall in London, but it was the joy of a well read bedtime story was what I was experiencing.
The story was “Fortunately, the Milk…” and it was being read by the author Neil Gaiman with the assistance of various folks including comedian Mitch Benn – and somewhat to the delighted amazement of the audience – Lenny Henry (playing a Space Police Dinosaur).
It was one of the most entertaining evenings I’ve had for ages. Funny, silly and just the right mixture of telling a thrilling story and being in a friendly environment, by which I mean the space where you kind of understand that everyone is in on the joke and that no one was there to do anything else other than to have good time.
When someone reads to you live in this way it is surprisingly arresting and I think you stop being critical and just listen. Or you do interact but it is in a positive way. At a dramatic part of the reading a small child responded to an evil alien blob’s laugh by shouting back, delighting Gaiman and the audience because that child, like most of us, was just lost in the story.
I honestly do not think film or TV or even theatre can quite have the same effect (that’s not a criticism of those media – I am just saying this is different).
I have been told that I am quite good at telling bedtime stories. I have limited experience as sadly I have no kid of my own to practice on, but when I have been invited to relieve tired parents from it in the past I have been soundly scolded afterwards. Unwittingly, it seems, I had raised the bar for those poor parents a little high and that story is never quite the same again. My apologies…
I can understand the scolding as I have the advantage of stepping in once or twice throwing everything in and then backing out to the peace and quiet of home, leaving the parents to deal with the fallout. Reading a story out loud properly takes quite a bit of effort. There are voices to do, silly or sinister or both; you have to change the mood often and rapidly while checking to see that your audience is not actually terrified so much they won’t go to sleep.
It is tiring stuff. But it is really a giving thing so it should be.
It reminds me a little of massage. Years ago I did a couple of years of massage class and what struck me was just how tired everyone was after the practice. You have to give out a lot in massage to do it properly. It is not something that can be done well in a half hearted manner. You are transferring energy to the recipient (and incidentally I’m not getting esoteric here, I talking the physics of energy transfer through the friction and heat of hard working hands). That takes it out of you.
So like massage, reading to someone is going to be tiring, but it is often rewarding and relaxing for the recipient, and a job well done brings at least satisfaction – and nothing is more satisfying than the signals that mean you have bewitched the reader with your telling.
It is not for everyone. Some of us do not like the sound of our voices or find reading harder than others or just a bit shy. For those of us who like the sounds of our voices too much (ahem) maybe we should look for more opportunities to use those voices to tell fun stories rather than spout ill informed opinions.
Subsequently, inspired by the reading I tracked down a couple of Gaiman’s older stories (“The Wolves in the Walls” and “The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish”) and had a go reading them to the lovely Wife. I enjoyed doing so. She enjoyed my readings (although with some nervousness over the wolves). I heartily recommend it as an activity.
Think about a short story you really like and try it out on someone you really like, and if they are comfortable, have them return the favour. Maybe you could have a short story party – it is a good an excuse as any for a get together and you might hear something very special.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.