All I learned at School/Was how to Bend/Not Break the Rules

That is a lie, by the way, from a personal point of view, but seemed an appropriate title this week. Rules are divisive things, even just taken from a personal perspective. In general I am in favour and not a rule breaker by nature, but I do sometimes take the Madness inspired route of bending them if they have the appropriate level of flex (which many do, if you look hard/creatively enough). Some of them are more important than others, and some of them more relevant than others. Unfortunately, many of the rule I come across professionally are largely there because organisations have abrogated responsibility or introduced rules for political (I mean this in the most generic sense) or emotional reasons, often under pressure, and therefore are often poorly thought out (if thought was used at all). Even when they have logical or technical justification, rules need revision and updating, and that process, should it exist at all, almost always lag the changing environment in which those rules are supposed to operate.

Rules are at the top of my mind now after a bit of an encounter while volunteering at the weekend. The house that I am a room guide for was partially closed for an event, which is an unfortunate necessity at times. Most visitors (and us volunteers) take this stoically but there are always a few that feel they are owed more. This time I was approached by a man of a certain age, with wild white hair and a jacket, adopting an appearance I would probably describe as ‘tousled’. After looking meaningfully at my name badge, he fixed me with an icy blue-eyed stare (which I can only assume he though was intimidating based on what came out his mouth) and challenged me as to why I could not at least take his wife around the closed area of the house, you know, no one would know.

I apologised, and told him that was not possible – I was under strict instruction that the area was closed.

‘So you’re doing it by the book,’ he sneered.

I just looked at him.

‘Yes. Apologies.’

At this point he marched off in the huff muttering – in that way that you know they want you to hear –

‘Typical British Civil Servant attitude…’

Which amused me immensely for various reasons.

The sad thing is if he had not tried to intimidate me I might have tried to find a solution for him, although, in this case I was under clear orders.

I’d contrast this to a few years ago, when while on duty I ended up talking to couple in their 90s. they were on, they told me, their ‘farewell tour’, in the process of visiting touchstones from their childhoods while they were still fit enough to do so. The lady concerned had often come to the house when she was a child, as her parents were friends of the caretaker at the time. She told me that her main memories involved playing in the tunnels (two access tunnels run the length of the house, giving access for servants from the servant wing to the staterooms) and cellars – as she put it, ‘running about in the pitch black and screaming a lot’.

The tunnels are not open to the public, but then again I not been told to never show them to someone who might have a specific interest. It was a quiet day, so I asked if she would like to see if it was as she remembered. So, I helped her down the stairs into the tunnels. Afterwards, she was on the verge of tears, and thanked me profusely – it was as she remembered, albeit now well lit, and for a moment she has been 12 again.

I think to deliberately break a rule is, mostly, a bad idea. Bad rules need to be changed, not ignored. However, sometimes a bit of bending and creative interpretation might just be a good thing, if it can achieve some good.


Today’s Soundtrack: Charmless Man by Blur


Nobody’s Diary

I have never found myself able to keep a diary. Funnily enough, writing this weekly blog on whatever drifts across my consciousness is probably the closest I have ever gotten to that. I have often tried to write one, mainly to record places I have been, interesting things that I have seen, that sort of thing, and I have lost count of the times that I have started to write one, but it rarely lasts more than a couple of weeks, before it stutters and becomes erratic before dying once more. It is not that I get bored with my life or recording it; I quite like recording places visited as you tend to forget where you have been over time but the slightest confirmation that you have been to a place can often unlock the dormant memories of that experience. Possibly it is a symptom of my general lack of discipline which tends to exhibit itself as I slowly drift away from whatever it is towards something that looks more interesting.

Of course, then there is the whole question of who a diary or journal is for. I can entirely understand that if you are in the public eye for whatever reason, then maybe it is worth making some notes as you go along. Most of us do not have to worry too much about what we might say one day as normally we won’t be called out for inconsistency several weeks later; if you are well known then this is more likely to be something you need to address. And as any trip to a book discount store will prove there is always the autobiography or memoir to churn out at some point. If you have made copious notes, then that is going to come a bit easier. I was amused on reading the (very entertaining) memoir of Jeremy Paxman his admission in the foreword that much of the recollections therein came not so much from his memory or notes but from contributions of others that a better reflection of events; particularly amusing coming from a journalist.

Memoirs can be a dangerous thing to read, especially if it is written (or ghost written) by someone who you like or admire; you are never sure that you are not going to discover something that you would rather not have known about that individual. My preference is to go for people I think look interesting, that I not know much about their background and with whom I do not have any major investment to date. The Paxman book was a good example of that, and by the end of the book I had a lot more respect for the man than perhaps I would have had otherwise. I had a similar experience in reading the autobiography of cooking duo Si King and Dave Myers (otherwise known as the hairy Bikers) where I had no idea of the rough nature of their backgrounds and frank descriptions of the close shaves with death both had experienced over an eventful couple of lives. Oddly, and this is just coincidence, most of the autobiographies I have read recently seem to involve at least one brush with the Grim Reaper, seems to be a showbiz thing to have to survive accidents/cancer/brain tumours etc. etc. on the way to actual stardom. Not entirely sure it is worth it. But I guess they must mention it as life events go there is little more personal than your own life being in danger; even marriage or children, often side lined for their own safety in such books, involve others and are thus a shared experience.

I won’t ever be in the public eye (I hope) so my lack of diary is unlikely to hurt me later. My life is a good one overall, and the people most dear to me know what is going on in it most of the time anyway, so that is good enough for me. If I was to write an autobiography I would have an urge to make it up anyway, as what goes on in my head is – and I think many of us share this – far more interesting and better than reality anyway.


Today’s Soundtrack: Could have gone for the obvious, but I’m going for ‘Every Day I Write the Book’ by Elvis Costello

‘Get Off My Land!’

In our road, there is parking restriction to try and prevent those commuting into London from parking in our road rather than in the overpriced car parking at the station itself. I probably should explain that we live a couple of streets away from the trains station that would take us on a twenty to thirty-minute ride into the centre of London, yet neither of us do or have ever worked in central London, which sometimes perplexes people; in the end, we are here because of family and we were lucky to find a house we liked and even more blessed to find it at time when we could actually afford it; now we would have no chance. Anyway, we have this restriction so if we want to park the car in the street it must be moved elsewhere in the morning. When we bring it back, ideally we would like to park it outside our house, which I think most people would appreciate. But quite often we have to put it wherever we can, as parking is a at a premium, often some distance away.

Now, we have no right to the bit of pavement outside our house, or a right to park there. But it is hard not to feel that in some way it should be ours and to feel a little grumpy when it is occupied by a strange car (i.e., one not recognised as a fellow resident in the road, similarly afflicted). It made me think about how territorial we are as a species. It is entirely understandable, as we are a social species that live, mostly, in communities. We have, at least in our own heads, the idea of what is ‘our’ space, and wo betide anyone that might encroach on that (without our permission). To give a personal example, our house is largely surrounded now by people with young families. A year or so ago one of them had guests with their own little offspring, and it was not long before a football came over our back wall. I was in the process of coming out of the house when a small boy – encouraged by his Dad – climbed over our back wall to retrieve his ball. A short, cold – but polite – conversation ensued with the adult concerned and all was resolved amicably, but thinking about it I had two main issues. First, the back wall is off dubious quality and I would rather not be responsible for a child coming to harm, and that was the practical reason. But the other was simply that they had invaded my territory without asking. Contrastingly, our new next door neighbours, whose two boys regularly punt balls over our fence did ask once, and thus we happily throw the balls back for them when we notice they have made an appearance.

This whole territorial thing was thrown into stark perspective this weekend when we attended a couple of large scale music events in London, both with crowds of over 40,000. The events concerned allowed folding chairs and picnic blankets. Now, even though the event space was large, that is a lot of people to fit in and with the chairs etc. each person takes up a lot more space than a human being on their own would. What resulted on both days was effectively a seabird breeding colony, with each group or pair – including us – staking out its territory as best it could and trying to stop other groups encroaching on that. Unlike a seabird colony I did not see many actual squabbles break out – thankfully most territories were established before too much alcohol was consumed, but there was certainly the odd glare and the occasional muttering. We like living in community, indeed we need to, but community is at its most welcome when it keeps a reasonable distance.


Slow Erosion of the Past

It is odd becoming detached from places you knew so well in the past. Generally, I think it is fair to say that most of us struggle with change in any part of our life even when it is clearly for the better. Most changes are probably neutral anyway in terms of the overall impact they have on us; but the outcries that often emerge when an alteration to a well -liked building – as an example – is proposed can show how much people can object to change even when that change has no impact on them at all other than offending sensibilities. Incidentally, let me be very clear here, I have signed enough petitions of my own over time that I’m not criticising this, merely observing it.

I grew up in an old mining village in County Durham, about three miles from the town of Chester-Le-Street in a bungalow on what at the time was considered a ‘nice’ part of the village; my school headmaster (and local councillor) lived down the street; that kind of place.

I’m an only child but the lack of siblings (which was not deliberate on my parent’s part, they just did not happen and apparently, I was a bit of a ‘miracle’ as it was) was compensated for by a dog and any number of other pets over the years.

But apart from the revolving and evolving cast list of beasties that shared the house with us there was always a dog and considering my parents it was made clear that when I was old enough the job of walking her (and her successors) was laid firmly at my door. So, I spent a fair amount of time walking around the village and the fields behind our house that stretched up a farm at one side and a large comprehensive school on the other. As an aside this was the school I should have gone to, an ugly mass of white Sixties depression. My parents were persuaded by my junior school teachers (in their attractive Victorian red brick across the road) to find a better solution, and as the comprehensive periodically was set on fire – and we knew some of the teachers who had been physically attacked by pupils in class –  they did not need much in the way of persuasion

So, the view I grew up with was mostly of fields that you could run and play in, and a view to a largely empty horizon.

I have just come back from a weekend visiting my father, who now lives alone in the same bungalow. It has been six years since he came home from hospital after his cancer treatment, and five since the last dog died. I still find it odd that some canine is not greeting me as I walk through the door, or that I do not need to worry about putting down food at a level a dog could normally reach after decades of that being a recipe for disaster. Stranger still is that when I look out that window now what I can see has changed completely. An ever- increasing housing estate now covers the horizon and most of the fields; the farm is still there but more derelict every year and no doubt will be replaced by more houses at some point. Perhaps stranger still is that the school has been levelled, and this time they are not going to rebuild it.

The place I grew up with has irrevocably changed. I have mixed feelings about it as I miss that piece of my history which is now consigned only to memory. However, people need somewhere to live more than I need the view. And in the end, it helps me with the inevitable cutting of links; I go back to see my Dad and that is pretty much the only reason. My home was in one place when I was a child; now it is somewhere else, and in another Season, it will probably be somewhere else again. Change is inevitable, how well you cope with it is the measure of success.