Cottage Cheese

So this is once more the time of Christmas past. Past, again, after weeks of anticipation it seemed to vanish in a whirl of relatives, Turkey and wrapping paper. But was always that in my home growing up so considering that the tradition is maintained at least. Thankfully for me the Lovely wife and I go away for New Year every year with friends and then my Dad has his birthday so that kind of helps eke out some kind of holiday feeling until at least mid- January.

So here we are in Wales in a rather nice cottage with a wood burning fire and most of the same delightful flourishes that tell you no one really lives here (because while one or two of them you might be able to bear, the combination would drive you nuts). Any of us that have stayed in such places can probably name our own favourites, but here are the few we came up with this morning over the coco pops.

Drop Latches on doors. They may look old world and attractive, but it is impossible to open and close them without making a racket that would wake the dead – or indeed the Lovely Wife, which is quite annoying if you want to sneak off to the bathroom, or bring her a cup of tea without waking her. Accept progress and have doors that close quietly and easily.

This place and several others we have been to have had lovely large roll top baths, with shiny spray attachments in the middle of spacious bathrooms. This is all very lovely except… What about all the water that is going to be sprayed around with the absence of shower curtain. They should start saving for the ceiling repairs now, I think.

Many of these cottages were never meant to sleep comfortably the number people they are advertised for and it shows. So let us face reality. Please avoid bedrooms where you have to have to walk through someone else’s to get through. Even more important please avoid family bathrooms which are actually an en suite. These things are bad enough for a family but have the potential to damage friendships.

Do not child theme anything. A single friend of ours is still traumatised by the Minnie Mouse bedspread and associated décor he had to cope with for a week. Single people do not equal children.

What is it with the cushions? In many places we have been there are so many cushions you have to excavate the bed to find it and then the damn things fill up the bedroom floor. And pillows? How many do you really need?

The complete lack of anything approaching a sharp knife is a constant. Also, usually the oven does not work properly. Odd really, when I go self-catering, generally I feel the expectation should be that I will be cooking at least a few nights a week so why to cottage kitchens usually so poor?

Over decoration is also common. We left the Victorian era some time ago, so filling the place and every wall with tat is not actually required anymore. The owner of the current cottage is especially bad on this and we cannot move for inspirational/sweet messages and jugs.

Finally, with an observation rather than a rant, there is the fascinating and entirely random collection of DVDs and CDs that appear. Particular gems this time around are a weird combination of Bryan Adams and the Lighthouse family (there are two Lighthouse family albums, which fascinates me. Wasn’t one enough?). Are they the rejects from the owner’s collections? Random picks from the local charity shop bought to fill a space not occupied by jugs? Or castaways from previous occupants, forming a weird rejected collective, huddling together for warmth and the hope someone, anyone, might play them again? Discuss.

But never mind the moaning. In the end we love it as in the end we do not have to worry about all the things that are wrong as we are only here for a week. So let’s just open another bottle and throw a log on the fire.

It’s still kind of Christmas here.


Is it dangerous to look back?

Is it dangerous to look back? Well, if you are Lot’s wife I guess the answer to that is clear unless you want a change of career to condiment. It did not do Persephone much good either come to think of it. In fact I cannot think of any reference where looking back is generally considered a good idea. When the monster is behind you the best thing is usually to run very fast. Or as in the joke with the bears, at least run faster than your fellow potential victims.

We are lucky enough to be able to eat out at nice places every so often and have developed favourites over the years that have developed not only a picture of reliability in our heads but also a level of nostalgia. You know the sort of thing perhaps. That place where you had your first proper date (or at least the one that went well, draw a veil over the others perhaps). Maybe it was just a place where you used to meet friends and the echoes of their laughter still permeate the place in your ears when you go in. The reasons why somewhere might have a particularly special meaning are endless. In some cases it is just time. One of my favourite places in London is a tiny wine bar off Charing Cross road, that has been run by the same guys for as long as I have been going – over 20 years – and is a little bit of France all on its own – warm, convivial and pretty much unchanging through that period. That atmosphere is such that you feel you should be ordering in French. It just seems the right thing to do, somehow.

But the problem is that you do not control what happens with these places. Like the village that I grew up with, generally they will change, adapt and sometimes disappear. The tapas bar the Lovely Wife and I spent far too much time in while we were courting closed pretty much the weekend we got engaged (I like to think that it did its job by that point and was no longer needed but would have been the venue for an engagement party which subsequently never happened). Sometimes it is less dramatic but can still be disturbing. The two nice places to eat we have been to recently were perfectly fine; but not as good as they had been in previous years. That is my problem. Once you have reached a particular standard then when it comes under it, even slightly, it is difficult not to feel a bit of disappointment.

Obviously there is a matter of degree here, but I do feel it is good advice not to try and revisit things that first time around turned out to be so special they stay strongly in your mind. Our first anniversary, for example, was a blinder. I had booked part of the the Eisenhower suite on the top floor of Culzean Castle on the South West coast of Scotland. Culzean is a National Trust for Scotland property ( ), the Robert Adam designed castle literally perched on the cliffs and set in magnificent gardens. The top floor was converted into a serious of rooms for Eisenhower as a thank you for war efforts and you can hire them for dinner and overnight stay. Usually that means just you and maybe two or three other couples in a magnificent setting including a grand circular drawing room overlooking the see.

We arrived in glorious sunshine to find a host of firemen (they had just had a false alarm) milling around in the sun. The Lovely Wife did ask whether I had arranged them especially. The truth of that will remain a secret. Anyway, we had the gardens to ourselves in the fading sun as all the visitors had gone, and found out tour delight that we were the only couple staying so literally had the place to ourselves. I can still picture being in the drawing room watch the sun go down finally across the waves; magical.

But much as it was such a special event, that it would be great to relive… We are never doing it again, because everything worked so well that I just cannot see another go at it being anything other than a disappointment, however slight, and the worst thing is it could damage the memory of the first time. Sometimes nostalgia is best kept at arm’s length in your memory and it is better to create new best times then try and recreates best times from you past.

It takes two

Now that Advent is well and truly on us, and the tree is up and glinting (the Spanish Lady looking good for her age I’m pleased to say) the radio is now gradually filling up with Christmas songs. A few of these songs are not actually that bad, which is a bit of a miracle in itself as listening to some Christmas songs is like getting teeth extracted, without anaesthetic. People usually quote ‘Fairy tale of New York’ as a highpoint, but I’d throw in ‘Christmas Wrapping’ by the Waitresses and Thea Gilmore’s ‘That’ll be Christmas’ as a more recent Christmas tune that is actually a good song too. But this is not really what I wanted to waffle about this week.
It started with a Christmas song. Well, it is a ‘winter song’ I guess rather than being explicitly Christmassy, but ‘Baby, it’s cold outside’ does have a naughty festivity to it. Well, the version I was listening to is my favourite one, with Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews from the Reload album back in 1999. Tom has never sounded dodgier and Cerys Matthews has one of those voices that just fits this song like a glove (and post song giggles and ‘bloody freezing innit?’ comments always cracks me up. Reload was an interesting album, a successful piece of reinvention marketing by Jones to bring him to a younger audience by doing duets with various more recent stars, a strategy that several have tried with varying degrees of success. Reload works I think as the songs are well chosen and some of the collaborators do sound as though they are enjoying themselves and enjoying working with an all-time great vocalist.
So what’s my point?
Well, they are alive. At the moment everyone seems to want to sing with dead people. It’s very odd and in my mind distinctly creepy. Some of the people having a go mixing their vocals in with someone who long since left the mortal coil are young and/or upcoming (e.g. Gregory Porter, who I like a lot, warbling along with Julie London on ‘Fly me to the Moon’). Julie London died in 2000. But it is not just the new folks, everyone is at it, as a glance at Barry Manilow’s new album reveals.
Now, I know that many duets today are not recorded together in the same studio, or even on the same continent. Most are recorded as separate tracks to be mixed later; fair enough. As someone who spends a lot of time at work thinking about the principles of things in order to understand what is a right or wrong decision, it does not take me a huge leap to go from this practical way of getting some interesting records made (although it loses some magic don’t you think?) to creating some fantasy records where one of the tracks is from someone no longer with us. But it just doesn’t feel right to me.
Posthumous music releases are a difficult one, even when endorsed by estates, families and former band mates. It is rather nice to hear a ‘new’ Queen song recently, albeit an inferior one, because for most of us this is totally new and a reminder for us to go back to the massive back catalogue (and a reminder of just how much Freddie Mercury could lift even the mediocre to something better than most of the tosh produced every year). But adding your vocal onto someone else’s track – without their permission – is something different to me. I don’t think it is creating new music. It is more like Damien Hurst daubing some paint on a Rembrandt. I’d much rather the artist just go and record their own cover and create a new interpretation and if they want to duet, why not use someone who is actually still alive? It all seems to me either a cynical exercise in marketing, ego (putting themselves on the same level as an established star of the past) or wish fulfillment. None of which particularly make me feel anything other than slightly creeped out.
Singing along to dead people should be reserved for the restricted audience of your own shower. Create new art with the living.

You’re all doing it wrong

It amuses me how everyone else gets Christmas wrong when it comes to putting up the decorations and such.

No, I’m not trying to be arrogant. It is just a desperate attempt to get someone to read this rambling nonsense. I know there is no right way, but it does rather depend on how things were done when you were a kid when it comes to defining what Christmas should look like. My mother was a big Christmas fan so it was usually quite early when the battered old artificial tree would come down out of the loft. Last year’s January newspaper would come off and we would then have to twist the wired branches into some kind of semblance of a tree. Finally, the big tins of decorations would come out. Not lights in our house but lots of baubles and, well, bits of stuff. A pair of sugar tongs in the shape of hands. A small plastic Spanish dancing girl (and no, I have no idea why she was on the tree). There was a plastic fruit that had been filled with sherbet and then rolled inexpertly in glitter by my juvenile hand. It was a mess really, a growing collection of seasonal detritus that were greeted like old friends every year.

It is a bit different now. We have a real tree for a start and I am not sure I would do without the lights, providing they are the flashy LED ones. I think by the time Christmas is over I have probably managed to hypnotise myself. But I’ve held onto the growing collection of nostalgic decorations. In fact the unseasonal Spanish lady and the sugar tongs have made it South to our tree, although slightly spookily I am not sure how that exactly happened. They just kind of arrived and have been since added to our Titian unicorn and the whelk shells rolled inexpertly in glitter by my now adult hand a couple of years ago.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the opposite idea of decorating with a new colour scheme every odd year which seems to be the other approach. That appeals on the grounds of keeping it fresh and elegant. But while the Lovely Wife could certainly qualify, elegance is not really part of my makeup, while routine and nostalgia certainly is. When I strap the Christmas Duck to the top of the tree every year I know it is indeed Christmas once again and I can start to feel Seasonally happy rather than seasonally depressed, which is pretty much the only other option. That said, I probably do now need Noddy Holder to scream ‘It’s Christmaaaaas!’ on Radcliffe & Maconie’s 6Music show to be able to legitimately able to break out the bubbly. Yes, I can collect traditions as well as tat.

Talking of traditions, I learned this weekend that at Wrest Park Gardens we may have the oldest living tree used as a Christmas tree in the UK. It’s a Wellingtonia, and absolutely massive. It is 158 years old and in its early life used to be dug up, shoved in a pot and brought inside to do servitude as the Christmas tree for the house, before being put back out again for another year. They are currently appealing to find out if there is an older one still living.

All this just makes me think is what it was like at the point when the gardening staff, caps in hand, maybe suggested politely that ‘if sir would be a minding, could we have a new tree this year, seeing that Mr Ford has just done his back in trying the dig the bloody thing up, pardon my French.’

What the Wellingtonia thought about it at the time is unreported. Quite possibly it gave a heartfelt sigh of relief that the endless cycle was over and it could get on with the very, very slow process of growing very large. Or maybe it was actually a bit sad; left outside in the cold while the family celebrated and laughed around some youthful newcomer. I would like to think that the new attention it is now being given is helping redress the loss a bit.

Read about the tree

(Although as you can see so far the star is only part way up the tree as it is quite so tall!)


I was amused at the weekend to hear an appeal for a National bird. I have a problem with most aspects of nationalism but I think a bird is probably at the least offensive end of the wedge. Over breakfast muffins there was a discussion on what sort of strategy would you pursue. For example, do you go for the weird looking one that would be at least unique, like the New Zealand Kiwi? Or perhaps something more iconic and something aspirational such as a peregrine falcon, which may not be the largest of our birds of prey but having had one flying centimetres above my limited scalp coverage at falconry displays on two separate occasions recently they are brilliant aerial acrobats. Or do you go for something everyone knows, like a sparrow. Or something just so beautiful that people will immediately warm to it, even if it is a merciless predator (I was thinking about kingfishers, but come to think of it the jay should also be in with a shout).Or maybe a Mallard, as everyone likes ducks, and for the best we can probably do for the nation is to choose something unthreatening and inherently funny and they are probably the best bet since we do not have penguins (outside of John Lewis adverts).

But I think it is a good time of year to think about this because for me at least the choice is obvious and will literally be staring us in the face over the next few weeks. It has to be the robin, surely?

Everybody in this country knows what a robin looks like. They are all over the country, in towns and in the country. They chase us along footpaths and get astonishingly close to us in our gardens (especially when we are gardening, last time I turned over one of our flower beds I had to shoo one of our locals out of the way so I could continue digging, so intent was he/she on getting in on the invertebrates I was turning up. They are attractive birds, both sexes are pretty (nice to have some equality there in bird land), bold, plucky and appear often positively friendly. They eat lots of garden pests. They are also, admittedly sexually promiscuous, prone to random acts of violence when high on hormones and make an awful lot of noise outside the window when you are trying to sleep at some stupid time at the morning like drunken lads on the way back from the pub (although much more tunefully). Come to think of it, they really do echo many British traits.

I think many of us have our own robin anecdotes too. Mine is from a dark and frosty winter early morning some years ago when I was scraping ice off the car in preparation for the dread M25 crawl to work. As I moved around the windows scraping away in the dark, I just looked up for some reason; must have felt that something was watching me.

The robin was about six centimetres away from my eyes, looking at me with an expression of pure aggression. How dare I be in his territory? Now a robin may not be very big, but that beak is sharp. But I was lucky; the tiny part of his tiny brain eventually seemed to compute that actually I was probably not a threat to his mating prospects after the turn of the year and he let me go on my way with only a warning.

So I am warning you. If you have a chance to vote, I advise you to vote robin, because they are watching us, and we are living in their territory after all. And while I suspect the goldfinches are no way as cute as they seem, don’t trust them to have your back. They eat thistle seeds. Robins eat meal worms. Not much of a contest there.

Apparently robins were voted national bird in the 60s and I cannot see them giving up territory without a fight. After all, when you find your recently bought department store toy penguin torn to pieces you’ll know who they really object waddling in on their Christmas card racket…

Very Capable

In order to take my mind off the interminable but important tedium of having platelets sucked out of my bloodstream I popped into a discount store in Luton this week and picked up a book. As I looked with some envy at the huge bloke in the bed next to me who only had a mere 56 minutes to deliver his contribution compared to my epic 78, I tried to concentrate on making myself feel better. Incidentally I am very happy to be back donating platelets even if it is a bit uncomfortable, and bless those forced to undergo dialysis, which is pretty much the same machine. Being not the biggest person in the world (despite the middle age paunch) I seem to be resistant to giving up the good stuff in my blood. This not only meant my arm wanted to drop off by the end of it but I was forced to watch ‘Escape to the Country’ and get irritated by the people who say they want X, Y and Z and are presented by X, Y and Z (with a cherry on top) and still decide they don’t like it (maybe it is the cherry come to think of it, I’ve never been a huge fan but my late and wonderful Nana would not have accepted Christmas cake without cherries, and generally she knew her stuff).

I’m digressing again, sorry folks. The book was a Hugh Dennis scribed thing about being English and while I wish it had been funnier I did find myself laughing along to one thing in particular – a fantasy scenario of Capability Brown with his branded white van popping off to do another job in the middle of doing Blenheim Palace (on the grounds he managed to restructure the grounds of about 170 stately homes in the UK he certainly git around). The Lovely Wife and I have a running family joke that Capability Brown was actually a franchise operation of the Eighteenth century, but actually that was probably not far from the truth. For the uninitiated, Capability Brown’s oeuvre was to sweep away formal gardens and replace them with a park landscape that put the house in harmony with the land around it – even if that meant fiddling with that to create something that looked natural but was actually completely artificial with altered topography and water features. And he was pretty damn good at it too, as is clear from the fact that so many of these created landscapes survive today – people were either taken in completely and feel they are actually natural, or maybe his grasp of the aesthetic was really that good in the first place.

I like Capability Brown, which I appreciate is not a usual aspect from a British person (to like someone that was a huge success, normally we like to push people off their Ha Has in to the ditch). He had a good product that was properly attuned to the time, and had a high work ethic. That should always pay dividends in my opinion.

I do find it quite ironic though that when I volunteer at Wrest Park House and Gardens in Bedfordshire, pretty much the only example of a proper period formal garden, Versailles-esque, in the country, not only was Brown employed there , there is even a monument to him on the site. But Jemima, Marchioness Grey, who was in charge at the time, either did not have the money, or, as I prefer to think, liked the gardens so much that she only got Mr Brown to dabble around the edges and to leave the bulk of the garden untouched for us to enjoy. An engaging lady it seems – she was a patron and friend of one of my personal heroes, the brilliant actor and theatre owner David Garrick – I like to think that she and Brown got on well, and that maybe he was happy to do something more subtle and sensitive than the normal product.

Well, the thought helped me through the donation, anyway.

Two appeals – first, if it is possible, do consider being a blood donor (it will cost you time and a little discomfort but it will save someone else’s life, especially if like me you are a rare blood type) and two, and far less important, visit Wrest – and admire one of the more unusual gardens left to us in the country.

Shock Tactics?

Late and long this week but then I was struggling with the topic and trying to be as balanced as possible; and probably I should not have bothered. But I was ranting at myself this week in the care (and had far too much time in the rubbish traffic) so perhaps I can explain this away as being personally cathartic. I’m not an expert on any of this, but a blog is a personal thing anyway, and no one reads it so I do not see what I was worried about.

The new Band Aid single is pretty awful. But then the original was hardly the pinnacle of song writing and largely survives more positively in my memory because of the nostalgia more than anything else (and, as previously blathered, because it was a new idea at the time). I’d have preferred an entirely new record for the ensemble although I suppose with the 30 year anniversary of the original single that was never going to be an option. And it’s marginally better that the last one and on a different artistic plane from the Hit Factory remake in the 1990s.

What has surprised me, and slightly bothered me, is the negativity expressed in some areas of the media. A lot of the ‘backlash’ (and I use the word in inverted comma’s because based on sales the negativity is not something held by most of the buying public, or maybe it is just the 1D fans doing the buying) seems to be based around two main areas – a lack of respect for the African people and shock tactics and suspected ulterior motives of some of those involved. Accusations seem to be that this is just artists promoting their new album and/or their new tour. Or that maybe these same artists maybe are angling/obtaining tax benefits, or assuaging their consciences for not paying money directly into charities from their own funds and forcing us poor public to buy this tosh instead.

Well. This is probably true in some cases.

But does it really matter?

I am not sure it does in my opinion. I think we have kind of forgotten what philanthropy is about. Putting aside that many of these artists probably do give significantly to charity (quietly) anyway and my personal bugbear on how many other people with significant incomes are making no contribution at all (while making tutting noises as they read the newspaper but not thinking for one minute that, just because they are not in the public eye, identical opportunities for giving do not all apply to them) this is money going to a cause that would not be there otherwise. Bluntly, there are thousands of kids who are not going to put 99p into the pot to fight Ebola in the street collecting box but are more than happy to pay that to get a few seconds of Ed Sheeran or Sam Smith.

These people have a talent (well some of them at least) and they are using it to do something good. I do not see what is wrong with that. If it is not entirely altruistic then that does not bother me. When rich Victorians paid for and built hospitals and orphanages it was not entirely altruistic either and mostly was to sooth consciences, put in a good word with the Almighty and/or massage their egos with the name in big letters carved in stone along the top, but it was better to have a hospital then not to have one at all.

I’m not going to hold anyone up to a higher standard than I have to apply to myself, and too often when I give it is out of guilt or some kind of sense of duty – of course I have an ulterior motive. It makes me feel good to give.

And plenty of giving is needed. For example, one good point I have seen made it is while everyone seems terrified of Ebola, TB, malaria and heart disease continue to kill thousands every year globally with no sign yet of a charity record to fight them. Maybe if we can knock this one on the head we can focus on the longer term issues. But sadly these don’t create the same fear factor for many people over here.

Fear and shock is something which has been recently and eloquently criticised in the Guardian ( ) although to be honest the original Band Aid did not invent shock tactics intended to try and shake the cold hearted and self-centred society we live in to part with their cash or push for change. When Charles Dickens wrote Hard Times it was deliberately to shock his Middle Class readership with the state of those working in the Northern mills (interesting how the most forwarded pieces on this topic seem to be from The Guardian and The Telegraph – coincidence? I think not). Pretty much every Humanitarian (and many other) Non-Governmental Organisations use exactly the same shock tactics.

Sorry, but this is advertising plain and simple and while the cause may be different from commercial profit the approach is the same – you have a short period of time to grab the attention and make an impression. If you want people to give you money you need to upset and horrify them and thinking this is ever going to be balanced is hopelessly naive. For better or worse, the current Band Aid is not doing anything different, and with the record sales you can understand why.

The image of Africa and its people is a key point and possibly the most challenging of all the discussions and like Fuse I do not have any answer other than that, to avoid being patronising, a lot of this change of image has to come out of Africa itself. Our role is to be more balanced and have to be ready to listen with open minds.

Here is hoping that whatever the views expressed, the actual situation improves and lives are saved.

Next week I want to go back to being fluffy. I am considering the practical plan for turning into reality a suggestion from Chris Evans on Radio 2 this morning that, after the survey suggesting our engagement with police is increased if they are mounted on horses (who would have guessed?) that all police on the beat should now be armed – with kittens.


I remember that when I was at university there was one evening I was walking back to my digs with a friend. This was not that unusual; late night chat and board games was a common occurrence. But this evening was a bit different. There was a kind of buzz in the air. I would call it an atmosphere of excitement but that would suggest that it was a kind of positive buzz. It wasn’t really like that at all; if anything it was uncertainty, specifically a ‘what happens now?’ kind of uncertainty, the kind of uncertainty that is resolved with an answer you strongly suspect you will not like.

You see we had just heard that we were now at war.

It was the beginning of the 1990s and it was start of what was called Operation Desert Storm, intended, so it was communicated, to push Iraq out of Kuwait after the recent invasion. As students who were not politically motivated (unlike many of our fellows) we were less concerned that evening with the political and financial reasons for this war and more with the sudden thought ‘what if it goes on for a while? Will we be called up?’

It sounds both naïve and certainly selfish but I confess that this was, at least for a short while, a real fear.

We consoled ourselves by playing Super Power, a rather naff Old Games Workshop board game in a tasteless and entirely typical action. Some alcohol may have been consumed.

This is my only real brush with war (unless you count the season of London bombings we steadfastly ignored in the same decade). Before this the last time and active war was on the consciousness of this young man was the Falklands conflict in 1982, and to an 11 year old boy the distant and largely successful campaign was mostly like an extended drama that a real representation of the horror; at least until the tragic events surrounding the Sir Galahad and the Sir Tristram which still leave me cold.

In some ways I felt at least I understood some of the complexities of conflict. I had grown up with the Cold War after all. More importantly, I had a good reminder of at least the Second World War thanks to my late Grandfather. He had served as a gunner crewman on Royal Navy Destroyers all over the world – he was most proud of serving on HMS Warspite – and had plenty of photos and stories to illustrate.

He was very matter of fact about the bad stuff; on one ship during a battle the gun turret he was in suffered a direct hit; the rest of his crew were killed. He was pulled out and suffered – physically at least – only by a blasted eardrum.

There was another time when manning an ant-aircraft gun that he was told to stand down by an officer as a suspicious looking aircraft approached. Apparently, he was told, the incoming plane was friendly. As the bombs rained down on the deck, his side of the story relates that he reported to said officer ‘that’ll be friendly bombs that they’re dropping, I guess sir?’

He preferred to talk about the missions around Norway, where he had been enraptured by the fjords and talk less about the pain, all the friends he lost, and the strain of living with the knowledge that he could be next. I think he was positively nostalgic as the opportunity for travel was something he would never have otherwise had, and certainly never had after the war.

In all the remembrance commemorations this November it is my Grandfather that more closely brings home the whole tragedy of the war to mind for me. I do not understand what it like to be in active service and hopefully I never will. I would make a terrible soldier. But then I know a lot of young people who understand the true scale of the World Wars even less – and it will get worse – as future generations will not have the chance to talk to someone who was there and lived through it and may not have the energy to look up the recording. Even the Cold War is history now; maybe that is why I look at tensions in the Ukraine with such a nervous eye. We don’t want to go back to that either. And that is my biggest concern today once I think about the gratitude I owe for being able to sit and write this – as a human race can we really change our way we interact or will we keep making the same mistakes over and over again?

Excuse me, but…

The Lovely Wife and I have decided we must both have what we call an ‘ask me’ face.

Let me explain what I mean.

When we are out and about, together or on our own, we seem to get asked for directions all the time. Friends of mine should find this very funny as I have the direction sense of a whirligig beetle, but still, they continue to ask. It does not matter which country I am in either; I have been stopped and asked for directions in Brussels and in Canada in recent months, which I find particularly amusing.

We do not know why this is. Possibly it is pure coincidence. Not being restricted by children maybe we are out and about more than many others and therefore might be the only people available to consult on where they can find the Abbey or a certain pub. Perception is something that is notoriously skewed by the individual. We all know when the world is against us and everything keeps going wrong. It isn’t usually and lots of things are going right at the same time but that is not how we perceive it. Our own special perception filter is extremely powerful and we either do not notice it or try and ignore it through denial. We all know that we are not as fat as we think we are but no matter how much we are reassured we will not listen once we have made our own decision and put on the dark glasses of ‘I’m not listening’.

But let us assume this is a real feature and people do find us easy to approach. Why might this be?

I have always aspired to the Douglas Adams classification of ‘Mostly Harmless’ so I take great pleasure of being asked for directions. Maybe I smile a more than I think I do. Maybe because I am not particularly tall and a little chubby I come across as less threatening. I know the Lovely Wife regularly smiles and her expressive hair is particularly distinctive. Maybe that hypnotises people into thinking she is a good person to help.

What makes you more likely to trust a complete stranger is a question I am sure has been studied at some point. As some people will know I recently was approached by a man in the cheap seats on the Eurostar recently asking me if he could use the power socket at my seat as his was not working and he need to recharge his Blackberry. He said he was from a couple of carriages down from me so it would be out of his sight. Sure, he would have it password protected (hopefully) but it still seemed to be putting some level of trust in a complete stranger. I asked him about it as I plugged the thing in, and he quipped that since I was reading The Guardian I must be a good chap. We laughed – but I think he meant it. As part of the image of me he saw was what I was reading as well as how I was dressed etc. and in this case he was partly influenced by his own (in this case positive) views of Guardian readers. He almost certainly reads it himself. So there may have been a tribe thing going on here, which certainly works for male-male interactions (the old chestnut about two men turning up at the same event in identical shirts making them friends for life, a situation that most of the girls I know would find mortifying).

But I wonder if unconsciously we are making ourselves available too. We both like giving directions and helping people, especially in our home town. It is quite possible that as well as walking over to the obviously lost we make body language cues that suggest openness. I hope so. I think a lot of time could be saved if we talked to each other a bit more.

By the way, if you do ask us for directions, the Lovely Wife is the better choice. I have the tendency to overcomplicate my directions, and am always a short sentence away from giving the historical commentary on the route, which when all they want to do is to find out where the nearest Subway sandwich shop is probably not that helpful.

The Certainty of Chance

As I was fuming my way along yet another terrible M25 experience this morning, it occurred to me that I would have taken it a lot better had I not had expectations that, since it was half term holidays, the journey would in fact be shorter, not twice as long as normal. If you know that it is going to be bad, you can prepare yourself better. A nice cup of in car coffee, maybe, although the wisdom of that when you are going to be stuck in heavy traffic some time is questionable. Maybe it could affect the choice of CD or playlist for something a little more cheerful, or contemplative.

Either way, today I was not well prepared and so was an irritated bunny by the time I made it into the office. But I am still not sure about whether it was actually being nastily surprised that was the main cause of that irritation rather than the ordeal itself.

The Lovely Wife will tell you that I do not take changes of plan with a lot of grace. Although I feel life is chaotic in a lot of ways I like to know what is going on at any point and, if possible, be prepared for it. Going to a new place involves research up front including printing out maps and knowing my train times; although to be fair the increasing quality of phone applications is starting to reduce (rightfully so) my demands on the planet regarding paper (although I have still not quite gotten used to getting away from a nice sturdy paper ticket when travelling on the Eurostar).

But I like certainty, in the same way I like a nice warm duvet on a cold day. And in the same sense, when I am forced out of the duvet by the need to get on with my life, it can sometimes be unpleasant.

I think, generally, that most of us do, at least for some parts of our lives. But it is not like that. Views on the metaphysical aside, practically very little is certain and I wonder how much of that leads to entirely avoidable dissatisfaction.

Recently I had a good discussion over coffee over climate change. In particular I was being asked if I thought that scientists had actually shown it was happening or not. Now I do not want to warble on about the particular subject, and it could have been any number of other topics from evolution to medical research, because actually I am not so much interested in the subject as much as how we seem to approach it. The question could be pitched several ways. Is it ‘proven’ being probably the simplest and probably least helpful.

I sometimes wonder, you see, if we are too keen on answers and do not spend enough time on the question or why we feel we need certainty in the first place.

A cursory glance at the newspaper will usually be rewarded with some ‘Scientists say…’ story (especially on Thursdays – publication day for New Scientist, the mainstay for lazy mainstream journalism looking for science stories). My heart sinks when I read that.

Which scientists? Has anyone reproduced the results (probably not, at least not yet, time pressure to publish is too short these days)? Are they quoting a peer reviewed paper in a reputable journal (itself not a guarantee of quality in recent years, but better than nothing)? Often not…

Now, I do not think it makes it wrong, either the going public or the reporting (I know that others will disagree on a point of principle and ethics, but ethics is a personal matter. Something for another day, but I digress – again). But it does worry me how we then seize on what may be very early research and instead of being excited about how that should be further investigated we seem to want to go to the end point straight away; which is usually inaccessible anyway. I tend to flinch when someone asks me to prove something outside of the formal use of the term in mathematics. It’s usually not that simple and I usually end up waffling about the ‘weight of evidence at the moment suggests…’

But a lot of the time we want it be simple and clear cut. I think we think it would make our lives easier, but I personally think – like my maps and forward planning – it is child being comforted with a favourite Teddy bear.

Is it safe? Will this work? Are the kind of questions we ask, and we want black and white answers. But people cannot and should not pretend it can give black and white answers (although they frequently do). We can and must advance our knowledge and we have to make the best decisions we can on the evidence available to us at this point but our expectations should be tempered by the experience of history, which is littered with people who at the time thought they were right and were quite clearly wrong. Whether that was because they did not have access to other data or ways of thinking or chose to ignore it I am not sure matters. My point is the tremendous trap of hubris we can all fall into of ‘I’m right.’

I am trying to be happy with uncertainty; it’s not an easy struggle.

I am however reassured by something I read recently (in a peer reviewed journal) that, when talking about the field of philosophy at least, that in 2600 years how few of the big questions in life have come to any kind of consensus1. Personally, providing the debate avoids actual conflict, I would rather have that situation then a world when there is nothing left to talk about.

1Christensen, David (2009) ‘Disagreement as Evidence: The Epistemology of Controversy.’ Philosophy Compass 4/5 pp.756-767