Thursday, 6 February 2020

The Pond on Christmas Day

Three-fifteen on Christmas Day. There was a lot of water on the ground from the rain. I'm not sure that there is supposed to be a pond on that little corner of my Air Park, but there was then and still is now.

Monday, 3 February 2020


Kingston-upon-Thames. I was there early one Saturday morning in the middle of January and with that grey sky, it looked and felt like somewhere in the Midlands, or perhaps Yorkshire. That's just not a southern English bridge.

It was extensively re-developed by Town Planners in the 1980s and 90's, and those guys had the architectural taste of, well, local council town planners. In contrast the riverside development at Richmond is at least an attempt to do vernacular. (Vernacular in Richmond is quite posh, of course.) Kingston is busy, and it has a lot of the shops you want, and a John Lewis, but it was not designed to look pleasant on the outside. It was not designed to be a place.

It looks like someone bombed it flat and then private developers were allowed to dump whatever they wanted wherever they wanted, with no obligation to create a public space with character.

But it could have been the grey sky. I drove back via Hampton Court, and everything felt like I was two hundred miles north of the Thames.

Friday, 31 January 2020

It's Friday Morning... Welcome to Freedom

We're out.

Free of the ECJ and the ECHR.

Able to control our own borders - though the Romanian crime gangs will continue to put beggars on the coaches, who will get through with no problems at all.

Able to make super-duper trade deals with the up-and-coming economies of the world. If they don't all get wiped out by This Month's Virus.

And fairly soon, I think we're going to find out what all the rich people knew that we didn't.

In the meantime, you can tell your grandchildren about how it was the Conservatives who executed the will of the British Working Man, while the Labour Party called him fifteen nasty names.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Inflated Winter Flowers

What's that in the distance? It looks like a giant tulip of some kind.

Yep. Someone in the City of London Corporation decided that a giant, hot-air inflated tulip sculpture was just what we needed in the dull days leading up to the New Year.

I thought it was semi-cute.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

James Wallman's Time and How To Spend It

According to James Wallman, we Westerners have around five hours a day of spare time, but feel we rushed and don’t have any time for ourselves. He offers seven rules for richer, happier days.

Let’s establish just how silly the book is. This is an actual quote:
Or you could be seeking deeper change: attending the Hoffman course, going to Mecca for the Hajj, taking part in an ayahuasca ceremony, or walking the Camino de Santiago.
The Hoffman course is a week-long residential course in California or Connecticut. I’ll let you read their blurb. Or you may be able to guess the psychobabble just from those details.

The Hajj is a pilgrimage to Mecca. You can’t just walk the walk, you have to talk the talk. If you don’t believe you’re not making a pilgrimage, you’re just being a religious tourist. You can’t seek change on your way to Mecca: you have to be a pious Muslim already. The same applies to the Camino de Santiago, which is the pilgrimage across northern Spain to see the relics of St James of Compostella. Again, you can’t seek change on the Camino, you already have to be a practicing Catholic who believes in the power of relics. Or you’re just a sight-seer.

An Ayahuasca Ceremony involves taking a South American herbal hallucinogenic. You can read more here. It’s best done in South America, of course. The view out of a Newcastle tower block isn’t quite as conducive to spiritual reflection, and you probably couldn’t get the right guru to lead you.

So that gives you an idea of the level of depth of thought that has gone into this book.

Wallman’s book is full of hacks - tricks to make you feel better. As with all lists of hacks, some of these may work for you, others for me, and if we get a couple of useful hacks out of a book that costs £10, that’s good value for money. This is one reason these books sell: we know each one will have at least one thing we can use.

STORIES is Wallman's Big Hack.

According to STORIES, when we’re thinking of doing something, he says, we should ask:

Story - is this something I want the guys at the office or the next girlfriend to know I did? Transform - will this help me change in a way I want? Outside and Offline - pretty much self-explanatory Relationships - will it strengthen existing relationships or help me make new ones? Intense - will it be intense and memorable? Extraordinary - in some way? Status - will it connect me to others and be significant?

So, not chilling on the sofa watching Two or Three Things I Know About Her on DVD then.

But, if you’re seventeen, you’re with a bunch of other people from college, it’s your first trip to the Curzon Soho, and your generation has had the good sense to pronounce Nouvelle Vague movies cool, then watching Godard’s classic at a retrospective at the Curzon... that’s a Story.

It’s not so much the activity (aside from Outside and Offline) as the circumstances in which the activity is performed.

The giveaway sign of the inveterate hacker is that they dive straight for detailed, specific problems. There’s no overview, no stock-taking. Spend more time with your friends they say, whereas the correct question is Which of your friends are worth spending time with?

How much spare time do I really have? (Don’t count commuting, meal prep, morning and evening toilet, and all the hours between arriving and leaving work. Also don’t count shopping, washing, and other housework.)

What do I spend that spare time doing now? Which of those activities do I wish I could stop? Which are guilty pleasures? Which leave me feeling empty? Which leave me feeling tired in a bad way? In a good way?

Which of my friends and acquaintances are worth spending time with and why / why not? How can I spend more time with the worthy ones, and let the bad ones slide?

How much exercise am I getting? Is it the right kind? Does it wear me out or build me up?

What have I always wanted to do but haven’t yet done? Which can I afford to do? Which could I do on my next week off from work? Or at the next weekend?

What am I doing that I think I ‘ought’ to be doing, but I don’t really want to, and isn’t really giving me any benefits?

Those kinds of questions.

Walman forgets that everything we do can’t be funky intense and exceptional.

(Unless you’re Lee Dorsey)

Sometimes it just has to be not junk. The trick is to find something else to do rather than fall down the black holes of TV, You Tube or whatever else counts as junk for us. At the end of a long day, with a frazzled brain and no zip, settling down to a nice Alain Resnais movie, or even a Donald E Westlake thriller, can seem like too much effort. And after a day in the politically-correct and painfully polite environment of the modern workplace, having Jordan Peterson call things ‘despicable’ and ‘ridiculous’ can feel almost refreshing.

Besides, I’m not so sure that we should let an author get away with the claim that a week’s worth of expensive psychobabble is more valuable than a few well-chosen videos from Alux, Jordan Peterson and Jocko Willink. As for social pursuits, I don’t want to count the half-drunk hours I and some mates spent playing Risk or Trivial Pursuit in my twenties or even thirties, and I’m not sure that’s any worse than playing an online multi-player game.

Spare time should not be used for toxic and pointless behaviour, but every minute doesn’t have to be used for self-improvement either.

So like all hack-books, get a couple of things from it, and it's worth it. Take the whole thing seriously and you're being misled. Took. Bamboozled.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground) - Mike and the Mechanics

This is a hidden 1980’s gem. ‘Mike' was Mike Rutherford from Genesis, one of the most successful bands of anytime, which issued forth three huge talents: Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford. Five of them (not Phil Collins) went to Chaterhouse, one of the more famous English Public Schools. Those were the days.

The song is set during an invasion of an unspecified country by another unspecified country. The Other Guys are winning, and they are going to win and stay won. Rutherford says the song is the words of a father from the future advising his son, and it could read that way. Whichever, the first three lines the first verse set the scene with incredible economy:

Take the children and yourself
And hide out in the cellar
By now the fighting will be close at hand
Don't believe the church and state
And everything they tell you
Believe in me, I'm with the high command

The third verse is what set me off...

Swear allegiance to the flag
Whatever flag they offer
Never hint at what you really feel
Teach the children quietly
For some day sons and daughters
Will rise up and fight while we stood still

The sad thing is that sons and daughters will not rise up. The same forces and threats that made it sensible for the parents to stay quiet will be present when the children are being raised, and be the same reason for the children to stay quiet. If you don’t fight back during the invasion, you won’t get to fight back ever. Look at history: the few times a population has fought back and won after an initial defeat, there was someone else to help the fight. The best an occupied population can do is guerrilla warfare, and that has a pretty poor track record. Quick, think of a guerrilla war which won were the guerrillas were not financed by a third party. Nope. None. Populations do not ‘rise up’. They stay down. (Any application of these remarks to the USA, Sweden or Germany is entirely unwarranted.) Because what strength do the sons and daughters have that their parents didn’t. Or were the parents tragically weak and ill-informed in some crucial way?

Those first three lines though.

Swear allegiance to the flag. So we’re going to rally and fight back?
Whatever flag they offer. Not your flag, their flag. Because they are going to win.
Never hint at what you really feel. That’s how complete the defeat is going to be.

At any time someone is going to feel that their world is being invaded. I felt that way about the PC thing in the 1980’s and about climate change / migration / woke-ness / identity politics and all that other virtue-signalling stuff. Doubtless the virtue-signallers feel invaded by Boris Johnson. Remainers feel invaded by Leavers. Republicans feel invaded by Democrats. The gilets jaune feel invaded by Macron. Swedish men and women are being invaded by unemployable gangster migrants (in 2019 there were 252 explosions in Sweden. The IRA was never that prolific.) Germans were invaded by unemployable migrants in 2016. Anyone over forty feels that Millennials are a foreign group. Decent Germans feel that the AfD is invading them, and decent French Liberals feel invaded by Marine Le Pen. All by herself. Old-school superhero comic / movie fans feel invaded by Bree Larson in Captain Marvel, but not by Gal Godot in Wonder Woman.

That’s why there’s something timeless about this song.

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Yes, I Am High-Functioning, Disheatened and Slightly Depressed(***)

I had really night’s sleep a couple of days ago(*) and when that happens, I lie on the couch with the lights off and You Tube videos playing quietly. I drift in and out of dozing. I ran across some videos on High-Functioning Depression (HFD). (Yep. That tells you about my browsing.)

A lot of the videos don’t list the diagnostic criteria for HFD. They do the ‘people with HFD may do this’. That’s not quite the same thing. People with HFD may also support Arsenal, but that’s not a symptom. Some talk about Major Depressive episodes, and Persistent Depressive Disorder, and those are way more serious. Some of them admit that the ‘High-Functioning’ bit makes the whole idea moot: aren’t depressed people supposed to be having problems functioning? I liked the comparison with so-called ‘functioning alcoholics’, and the comment that when you look at how someone with HFD describes their life, it’s all the stuff they are obliged to do (get to work, do the job, pay the bills, wash clothes, etc etc) and nothing about family, friends or hobbies. Which has nothing to do with my life at all.

Some of the videos attempt to link it to dysthymia, and that makes me wonder if they have ever seen someone with dysthymia. Think depressed teenager, but less communicative and without the attitude. Or try to imagine how it would feel if you could not name anything that might happen in the normal course of your life that would make you feel good. (My answer is warm air and sunshine, not too hot, and being able to enjoy it. That happens on three days in the normal course of anyone’s life in the UK.)

A lot of this is pseudo-medicalisation of the age-old condition known as you don’t have much fun, do you?, by therapists looking for clients. (Business gotta business.) Describing the condition like that implies that the answer is to have some fun. Like that’s something I can get at the same time as the kitchen paper, olive oil and bread. ‘Find a hobby was another one’. And of course that old favourite `find some like-minded people’. Yes sir, like-minded people, Aisle 13, next to the power tools, but don’t bother because we haven’t had any in stock for a while now.

Let me describe the Good Life as therapists and even more high-powered analysts don’t quite spell it out:

Good health, sound sleep, a sensible diet and regular effective exercise A collection of friends and acquaintances whose company we enjoy and who enjoy our company, and with some of whom we can speak openly and honestly about whatever (congenial milieu) A supportive domestic partner who just loves to have sex with us Good relations with our family of origin and the in-laws A reasonably secure income that we can earn and still have time, energy and attention for all the preceding A role in a community (optional extra)

These things are almost a guarantee of happiness and a sense of fulfilment, and if you don’t have these things, and especially the congenial milieu, then you will feel a lack, and that sometimes you’re pushing the load of your life up a long hill with a low gradient: each day doesn’t take a lot of effort, but there are no days off.

The sense of connection with people is important. If all I have in common with the guy next to me in the scrum is that we’re both in the scrum, I’d better like playing rugby for its own sake. If there is no after-the-match camaraderie, I may as well roll in a mud-bath and then do a workout at the gym. Without the connection, most activities involving people are as satisfying as a puffed rice cake. The High-Functioning bit may keep us playing rugby, but it won’t be fun, at best it will be an goal met, a box ticked.

The therapists have the causality backward. HFD’s are not depressed and therefore have no friends, a sporadic sex life, distant relations with their family and no supportive partner. Rather, some people realise that there’s no connection with their ‘friends', that they aren’t meeting the kinds of people who would be supportive, loving partners, and so their sex life tends to be sporadic, and as for their family, the less said… and whether they cut those activities out of their lives or not, they will be at least slightly depressed, and get the HFD label.

People talk about rejection as painful, while there’s less said about the effect of a never-ending lack of opportunity. Another day, and still no pleasant feminine women. Another day, and still no job openings. Another day, and still no sunshine. Lack of opportunity disheartens us. That’s an old-fashioned word for exactly the old-fashioned disposition I need to describe. ‘Heart’ is a mixture of dispositions: optimism, courage, kindness, mercy, bravery, determination, and above all, a zest for the good fight. To be disheartened is to be pessimistic, reluctant, reserved, and above all, unwilling to engage in the good fight, perhaps because one has come to believe that it is not a good fight at all. Lack of opportunity makes us unwilling to engage, and believe that the combat is not worth the spoils. Lack of opportunity saps our vivacity like the taxman saps our salary. And it is a natural reaction to the realities of our lives.

I have to go on working because my pensions aren’t worth a damn. I’m too old to be attractive to women I find attractive. Too much single living has made me too quirky to make connections with anybody - there’s always going to be something significant that I’m not or the other person is not to trip up the communication. One of the dirty secrets of life in post-modern capitalism is that cultural consumption can be far more satisfying, and far richer in content, than spending time with people. Get into the habit of high-quality cultural consumption, and the people you meet will have to compete with the book on your iPad or the movie you’re going to watch. On a probability-weighted basis, most people will not come out of that comparison ahead. And don’t forget, I don’t drink, or smoke, or do drugs. I have to abstain. No taking the edge off of any of my days like you can. I’m booked five days a week and Saturday morning. No spare time except Saturday afternoon through Sunday evening. The diary of everyone who wakes up early and has a one-hour commute.

After a while, it is easier to treat the world vaguely and politely, and pass it by with benign indifference. Focus on our own lives, on what we have to do, on work, on domestic activities, on the ideas in the books we are reading, on whatever our pastimes are. Let the world carry on in its own little bubble, because it has nothing for us.

Dis-hearted-ness can spread, and when it does the result is low-level depression. We let things slide - the untrimmed lawn, the dirty car, the washing that piles up, the un-watched movies and the un-read books, the missed visits to the few people we do know - because it seems silly to have a bright shiny life on the outside when the inside is a little dull and drab. Sometimes it’s not always us: a string of cold wet weekends will leave cars dirty and lawns messy, because who wants to go out in that?

So yes, I am dis-heartened about never having the Good Life. It’s caused by the facts of my life. Not the other way round. However, now I understand what’s happening, I can ask: is that the (justified) dis-hearted-ness overspilling into parts of my life where it has no justification? I can also stop thinking there is something inexplicably wrong with me, because it’s not only explicable, it’s a consequence of decisions I’ve made, and it is therefore unseemly of me to whine about it. I do things not because if I do, I will find friends and lovers, but because I will feel better if I do.

Because if all I have in common with the guy next to me in the scrum is that we’re both in the scrum, I should not waste my time playing rugby unless I really like playing rugby.(**)

(*) Still made it to work on time, did a day’s work, and hit the gym. Slept like a log that night.
(**) I don’t. Not even close. It’s a metaphor.
(***) I know. First burnout and then HFD. What’s next? Call my nephew when you’re my age, still working, still lifting weights and generally keeping your life rolling. Otherwise, STFU.