Breaking the Fourth Wall

So it is Christmas finally. Well, not really. For some strange reason some people are still asking me to do work, which is not really fair off the back of a full on Carol service and a bad Christmas jumper evening at our favourite pub. As discussed with some younger friends of mine over some mulled wine this unreasonable view that for pay you need to actually do some work seems to still be somewhat entrenched. Oh well.

But at least people seem to be starting to enjoy themselves a bit. Perhaps too much in some cases… Certainly based on the groups of drunken young lads in London this Saturday, whose regression to naughty ten year olds was only held in check by the presence (thankfully) of the one member of the party who was sober/more mature and occasionally barked a quick reprimand to his friend that pressing the emergency stop button was not, in fact, the funniest thing ever. In fact we had a lovely day out in London this weekend including catching the musical version of Billy Elliot before it closes in the West End. This was a slightly odd experience for me as not having ever seen the original movie or this stage version I did not really know what to expect. Soon into the performance however, as the tears began to well up a bit, I realised why I had to this point deliberately avoided it. The problem with Billy Elliot is that it is too close to home for me to be comfortable. Not that I have ever fancied myself as a ballet dancer (stop laughing now) but more that I’m the same age as Billy Elliot. Based on the setting and the time, that could have been me. Right period, mining village in County Durham… all things I understand disturbingly well, and the characters and humour just made me think of family and people I knew. On the whole, I do not get that through entertainment I watch, as I prefer most of the time to wallow in escapism.

I am not sure exactly what I find disconcerting about seeing things I recognise as the own reality I grew up in, but I do. I wonder for me whether part of me really embraces a substantial gap between the realities of what my life actually looks like and the fictional world(s) I find entertainment and relaxation in. When they cross over a bit too much it jars. Another recent example was in the recent Bond movie – ridiculous escapism again, did anyone else just feel that this was an updated Roger Moore romp in many ways (and that, again for someone of my age, is by no means a criticism) – when Ralph Fiennes ‘M’ finishes off his late night dinner and walks out of a certain Covent Garden restaurant to which the Lovely Wife and I have a Christmas meal out every year. Indeed, the head of the ’00’ programme is eating a few tables away from where I proposed, although admittedly the table we had been sitting at back in 2012 is now a bar (I don’t think that is any kind of universal message on the state of our relationship). While it raised a grin, it also seemed just a bit weird.

Many times I am accused of deliberately mixing up aspects of my life (e.g. friends from different zones) and waiting to see what happens. But I think I would like to keep the reality and the fantasy a bit separate; I cannot help feeling that for me at least the impact of both would be diminished otherwise.


It is at this time of year that I find myself being at my most guilt ridden. While I am able to enjoy myself with all the fruits of the season and go out more or less when and where we want, I know perfectly well there are many who cannot. In fact I cannot miss them because I pass them on the street on transit between some exhibition and a nice meal, or perhaps the theatre. They are there, sitting on the hard, cold pavement, and too often I know that I pretend not to see, or see and try and forget. And time and time again, that is what I do.

I wish I had the courage to do differently and make the time to care more.

Now, I know I am not the only person who has issues with this, and I know it is not always clear. In some places there are begging rackets – I stopped feeling so bad in Brussels when I saw someone I had given money to standing later outside a supermarket smoking a cigarette and checking her iPhone.

But the young girl I gave money to last week in London honestly looked genuinely shocked to get anything, and I have no doubt she was not there out of choice. It was one of the few occasions where I have walked past but just had to go back and reach into my pocket.

You get conflicting messages about what to do, and I have no answers. I fully support the various NGOs that work in this area; because of where my heart is, particularly those like Centrepoint that look to get young people off the streets and try and find a way for them to get back on track in some way, no matter why they come to be in that state in the first place.

But age should not matter (even if I know it does, but that is a common human perception issue) and the issue is one all the year round, but it is especially acute at this time of year. I think that for me it must be that the gap just seems especially wide now, between those enjoying Christmas cheer and those on streets – or even in houses they cannot afford to heat – when the weather is at its most vile. There is a part of me that just wants to stop, and talk to people if I can, to find out why, to understand if there is something I can do beyond a few coins. It may be that all I will end up doing is to anguish over it and diligently pay my monthly subscriptions to the like of Shelter. I hope not. Like a lot of things that I feel should be better in my life, I hope that age and the confidence that it can bring will help me to learn what works and fro me to be better at understanding what it is that I can do to be most effective; because while I convict myself of the crime of looking the other way time after time, that is of no help to the person who might have benefitted from my assistance. I’m not in the right place yet, so it looks like another year where a feeling of discomfort is going to be underlying the joy and love that I experience. But that in the end is a light sentence. I know how blessed I am, I need to learn how to be a better blessing to others.

A Matter Of Perspective

The general complaint being made at the moment is the slightly odd ‘it’s too warm for Christmas’. I have some sympathy with this, as it is relatively hard to get into a properly festive mood when the weather is generally grey and pretty mild. There needs to be a cold northerly wind at least, something that makes you (1) wear a scarf and (2) pull it tightly to prevent the drafts. I can take or leave the snow though; while like most children I had a lot of fun in the white cold stuff as an adult I feel that I only want significant snowfall when I do not have to travel anywhere and can look out on the prettiness of the garden from a heated room with a warming (one way or another) beverage.

But actually while the romanticism is all very well and while the biologist in me would like a proper seasonal change at the same time the niggling voice in my head says to be thankful for the mild weather. Not only does it mean less energy usage, it is too easy to forget when you are able bodied and still young enough to be able to control your own body temperature effectively how unpleasant and dangerous this time of year can be for some.

For the older people I know the problem is particularly acute. As we age, and as things – no matter how we take care of ourselves – begin, if not actually to fail, at least work with reduced efficiency – one of the more obvious issues being a reduced ability to regulate your own body temperature and subsequent reliance on outside sources. In winter that means turning up the heating – visiting my dear departed Nana was an exercise in sweltering in tropical conditions but she was only just comfortable (incidentally, the issue is just as bad in the heat of summer, and in the UK at least there is not the availability of air conditioning so it can be just or more difficult). When you add the impact snow, ice and frost has on people that are often a bit unsure on their feet in the best of conditions and it is easy to see that while for many a Winter Wonderland is anything but.

There are times when I feel that we often should take a few steps back and look again in a different way at how we feel about something. Worryingly for me, if I try that, I often find that the even if I can agree with myself on whatever is currently bothering me (as opposed to suddenly realising that I was just plain wrong) is how petty the subject can be. I’m amazed at my own capacity to complain about something that is either of no importance at all or where actually I should be positively thankful of where I stand in relation to it, not complain about it.

So on reflection, I think I will be happy with the warm weather and be glad that for some people this may be a slightly more relaxed run up to Christmas than sometimes is the case, and have extreme sympathy for those who will not enjoy this year either because of the disasters that have befallen them (such as the floods in Cumbria, ongoing as I write) or those who are missing the love that I personally feel from so many friends and family at this time of year.

‘You’d Better Watch Out…’

I see that the Christmas starting gun has well and truly been fired and we hurtle once more towards the usual festival of excess (and that is only the TV specials). OK, some people have already false started prior to the start of Advent but I think the majority have now realised the inevitable and certainly for those of us sending parcels to friends overseas it is probably already too late to ensure they get there in time.

Time seems to be a generic issue. At least everyone I have spoken to so far feels that this year has rushed by even more than usual and as I look at what seems an ever more crowded diary over the next few weeks it does make me wonder when it all got quite that busy. There was a time when putting up the tree was a leisurely pursuit to be carried out when the Lovely Wife and I felt like it (sometimes a debate – I would have put it up today if given the choice whereas the better part of me would prefer to hang back in case of festive fatigue reducing the real fun when it really matters. Not so this year; we have two possible dates and that’s it. It must be the first year I have actually written ‘put up Christmas tree’ in the diary as a scheduled appointment. As I say’ I do not think we are entirely alone in feeling the concertina of time bellowing at us the days tick away.

There is an extra frisson to the Christmas decorations this year, which I will names as ‘avoiding the dead wasps’. Better than avoiding the live wasps I guess, but the corpses of this year’s lodgers have made their way into the Christmas decorations box requiring just a tad more care when pulling out the reindeer than does one verse of ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ and the decoration most likely to annoy the Love Wife – yes, the farting Santa. Actually he sings as well, but more frequently seems insistent on blaming, and I quote ‘some bad cider’ for making the obligatory rude noises. Now I must, in my defence, note I never purchased this fine piece of seasonal art (unlike the aforementioned reindeer). It was acquired at a Christmas party at the Lovely Wife’s former place of employment, so I guess it can be best viewed right from the start as something that would annoy. But it brings out the worst in me. It has to make its way into work every year, if only for one day and only for about 20 minutes, by which point everyone is sick of it and in order to preserve its use for another year – and indeed any threats of unseasonal violence against my person – the batteries come out and once more it will be consigned to the loft. Every year the Lovely Wife hopes that the conditions in our roof space (or maybe the wasps) will have made the thing inoperable and it can finally go in the bin. But for a piece of cheap tasteless Christmas rubbish it is proving surprisingly robust… Over ten years of service and counting. That said, its appearance is becoming increasingly grotesque as dye from the moulded red Santa costume has leached onto and stained the plastic beard, which does give old Father Christmas now the air of a rampant zombie that has moved beyond not giving the naughty children any presents to eating their brains.

I think it just adds to the charm, personally.

Bedding Down

Finally winter has arrived, for those of us lucky enough to be able to be welcomed home to a warm house and a casserole. Hopefully it will be a chilly but relaxed winter – enough to reset the plants and animals in the garden to a proper winter cycle which we have not really had for a few years. As discussed recently the last thing we need is it to be inconsistent with a mid-December heatwave; the species that are likely to wake up too early from hibernation could do with a year off – we’re pretty sure the local bat population in particular has suffered in the last couple of years by being woken by unexpectedly warm weather only to find no food, and unlike the birds it is not something we can do a lot about to compensate.

It has been a good year for us in the garden –plenty of redcurrants, blackcurrants, apples and a good crop of home grown garlic to liven up several months of casseroles and pasta dishes. Less successful has been some of the decorative planting, where the inevitable squirrel/pigeon and most of all, the blasted slug, onslaught on anything new in the garden has been again a source of frustration and ultimately disappointment as suddenly without warning the promising looking Lobelia is munched to the ground overnight (after weeks of being untouched, clearly just lulling me into a sense of false safety). The worst part of it is that I actually quite admire slugs and snails, but we would get on a lot better if they would eat the ground elder rather than my Salvia.

I know nothing about gardening. As a child, it was a chore, and I hated anything to do with it. Admittedly, the only aspect of gardening my youthful self was ever involved in was mowing the lawns, which could never be viewed as a particularly interesting job. Actually, I will make an exception there – the Lovely Wife and I do agree that mowing the lawn could be fun if you had a huge lawn… and therefore needed one of those little lawn mowers you can sit on and, um, play on. But aside from that fantasy scenario it is probably my least favourite chore. After hoovering the house… Oh, and ironing.

But I really don’t know what I’m doing messing around in flower beds, so anything that seems to grow and thrive is either very lucky or extremely robust.

Part of the problem on my part is a lack of planning. The Lovely Wife and I have a recognised ‘poles apart’ scenario here, which goes a bit like this. I see an interesting looking plant/shrub/tree in a shop or market stall and proceed to buy. At that point I look to shoehorn it into what seems an appropriate gap in the garden. Several times this year I have returned, beaming, from the market with several (reusable!) bags of bedding plants to be greeted with something along the lines of ‘that’s all very nice, but where are they going to go?’ (My reaction is usually a bit of a shrug, unless I’ve had an inspirational moment, although I’ve yet to try the vague gesture towards the end of the garden with a deliberately ambiguous ‘over there of course’ gambit). The Lovely Wife of course looks at the space, thinks about what the space could look like, considers the drainage and level of shade etc. etc. and then determines what we need to go and buy. I’m always terribly impressed, and I’m trying to learn to do the same, honestly I am, but my natural tendencies tend to reassert themselves at a moment’s notice.

Of course, by this point I’ve already filled that place with some random plant picked up on a whim, but at least she can be reassured that the chances of it dying by being in the wrong soil and location and/or will be massacred by the local wildlife, so order will have a chance of being restored, eventually.

Yes You Can (probably)

At the weekend I found myself listening to someone talking about a subject which I have had many conversations and thoughts over and has never been boring to me because of its importance. The subject was gifts; not, as perhaps is becoming more and more topical as Christmas bears down upon us, gifts in the sense of presents, but the gifts that individuals have. Or their talents and skills, whatever words you would like to use.
The fact is that everyone is gifted in some way or another. One of the best ways to get me mildly annoyed is to moan about being ‘useless’ or rubbish about not having anything to contribute. Particularly annoying is that I sometimes get that from young people, where the power locked up in them is so obvious to me I want to get a magic mirror to see if I can persuade them to see what I can see in front of me – unlimited potential for change and improving the world around them for the better, if they can be bothered and have the belief that nothing is impossible (albeit some things highly improbable, but worth a go surely?).
Why do people have such low opinions of what they can contribute?
Certainly sometimes it is hard to understand what you can bring to the party. For many years I struggled with it myself. It never seemed to me that I possessed anything that seemed to be the mark of the gifted. I was never very good at anything physical, so sports were out. My artwork far surpassed the worst extremes of abstract, which would have been fine if I had been aiming for abstract but not great when you were supposed to be drawing a horse. I seem to have some kind of inherent blindness when trying to read music and I failed at the recorder, which still keeps me away from any form of musical instrument to this day – my ukulele lies sadly unused because I still think that it is fairly pointless me even trying. In academic work; well, that wasn’t so bad. But there were always people brighter than I was. No one actually is happy being third best.
The last ten years things have changed a little for me, through a mixture of affirmation from the Lovely Wife and others and from a more clinical look (through things like the Gallup Strength Finders programme). My big revelation was to accept that there were a lot of people who are more obviously talented than I am. But they do not always see it and/or they lack the confidence to push those talents to a point where they are starting to see just what they may be able to achieve. I can help. I want to help. I’m an encourager, sometimes a catalyst, sometimes just extra fuel for an engine already running. I do not have to achieve anything myself, my contentment can come from having a tiny part in helping others succeed.
I’m reminded a little of one of the few successful showbiz marriages. No one would doubt that Dame Judi Dench has certainly been a success in her career as an actor. For many years she was married to Michael Williams, another actor, until his death some years ago now. Rarely do two actors manage to hold things together but by all accounts their relationship was close and loving right up until Williams died. What struck me as the most interesting part of this was in an interview I remember reading where he was asked if he resented in any way that his own career was eclipsed by that of his wife. He was clear; not at all. It was not just that he did not resent it, but that he felt that his role in supporting her meant that he also got the thrill from her ever increasing profile. Her success, her happiness was mirrored in him. I love that. For me, the ability to touch and encourage lives is a great blessing, and I understand the risks – sometimes you might encourage and find that in fact the path you’ve just pushed them down doesn’t work… But if you take that attitude nothing will ever be achieved. Together, using the gifts we all have we can achieve anything and it is one of the few things that gives me hope for the future.

Life on Mars

Despite suffering from some kind of international lurgy (I cannot blame it on any particular country having just been at a meeting where there were people from all corners of the globe), we managed to stagger to the cinema last night – well, we had booked the tickets a few weeks before as the wonderful Odyssey cinema with its comfy chairs and ‘event’ atmosphere somewhat demands that. So even though I did not really feel like it, wasting tickets is not my thing, and after all it was just around the corner.

We were going to see The Martian, with a mixture of hope based on good reviews and a bit of trepidation in that Ridley Scott’s directorial output really does range from the sublime to the ridiculous and while they always look great the substance can be a bit more on the dodgy side. Also I remember my childhood memories of the 1964 Robinson Crusoe on Mars (anyone else remember that?) and wondered how original this really was. As I should have known it is a very different movie but I’m not intending to spoil it for anyone so forgive generalities.

Well, it certainly looked great. Part way into the movie I was perfectly able to suspend disbelief that they had not in fact, shot a lot of the movie on Mars. But I had expected that so no surprises. But did it live up to expectations in other areas? Well for me, mostly it did.

I’ll get my moans over early. I found the soundtrack, while it provided some good gags, was ill judged in places and undercut the drama just that little bit too much, leaving me in less doubt of the outcome then I otherwise might have had. There have been comparisons with the funky retro soundtrack for Guardians of the Galaxy, but in that case it is more (1) firmly linked to the lead character as a plot point and (2) Guardians has a talking, gun toting raccoon in it. Slightly different overall feel to both movies, I think.

Secondly, by nature of the story and its progression there is an awful lot of Basil Exposition but only a few times is it jarring – and to be fair, characters are often explaining what’s going on to each other in a way that might have been necessary, as often they are specialists in their own area. But there is a surprising amount of talk for a movie where half of it is basically a man on his own trying to survive.

But apart from that, it’s a clever, funny and affirming movie. Two aspects particularly made me cheer.

One, I cannot talk about as it would be a plot spoiler. But at one point something makes and appearance – and becomes fundamental to the plot – that was an air punch moment that was just lovely for anyone who has followed the real Mars programme.

The other was, as noted, the attitude. This is a movie for anyone who is a scientist, specialist, or believes we can do pretty much anything with the right attitude. I’ve seen it before in the business world, with the rejection of something being impossible and rather seeing it as a set of smaller problems, with ‘what needs to be true if we can make this worse’. In this case you deal with the immediate, smaller problem first and move towards the bigger resolution in baby steps. Time and again, different characters in different situations are creative and constructive to try and resolve the issues they are facing, and able to change plans to respond to unexpected circumstances.

It is hard not to like such a positive movie (there are no bad people in this movie – everyone is doing what they think is best, even if you don’t agree with them) and one that I suspect will inspire younger viewers towards science and technology while reminding them that it is also a lot to do with heart. One caution for my friends with children – I think BBFC have got it spot on as a 12A… Considering the situation and the way this story should be lead to a need for some more adult visuals/dialogue.

But generally I felt the balance was close to being spot on and would encourage younger teens certainly to see this and start dreaming of what they can achieve.