Friday, 30 October 2009

The first draft of anything is… in dire need of improvement

So said Papa Hemingway. Actually he said: "the first draft of anything is shit". You don’t really know what you need to say until you have tried to say it. You may know what you want to say, but if that's all you say, it's just self-indulgence. You say what you need to say. You check the facts you are stating and the assumptions you are making. You search and delete clich├ęs, urban myths, lazy short-cuts, waffle and boilerplate… and replace them with clear, simple ideas well-expressed. Mutatis mutandis if you are working in the visual arts.

Actors, dancers and musicians rehearse, soldiers, sportsmen and athletes train. Drafting is what writers, programmers, designers and artists do – or should do. Fashion photographers used to take hundreds of shots to get the magic for the cover of Vogue (now they take any old thing and Photoshop it to death). Painters scrape off the oil and start over, musicians stop the tape and record it again, movie directors do take after take of a scene. Because that’s the way you get the little flashes of magic that make it something to be proud of.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

I Can't Live Without... Shirts

Every time I want to buy shirts I dutifully walk up and down Jermyn Street looking in all the shops: Turnbull & Asser, T.M. Lewin, New & Lingwood, Harvie & Hudson, Hildtich & Key and Pink.

I always end up back at Tyrwhitt's. I prefer their conservative styling and colours - Hawes and Curtis have gone particularly wild for the A/W 2009/10 season - and they don't use cutaway collars. The fact they almost always have some sort of "sale" going that means you get a shirt for around £25 that is a lot better than anything Marks and Spencer sell at the same price. One the other hand, I always look at Cordings...

... and wish I could wear more of their clothes. I have two pairs of their corduroy trousers (dark blue and dark purple) but their clothes are for the damp English countryside and London has been getting warmer every year recently.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Monday, Monday

Another week's holiday, this one around London because I can't afford to go abroad. This morning was warm and sunny, so I went for a stroll with the camera round Virginia Water.

Autumn colours at their best. In the afternoon, I went to the Ed Ruscha exhibition at the Hayward Gallery and was surprised. I'd always thought of Ruscha as a Pop Artist, but he's developed throughout his career. The best painting there is the Old Trade School Building...

... the windows are boarded up and it's surrounded by chain-link fencing - the painting of the boarding and fencing is extraordinary. It used to teach young men useful trades they could take to the aerospace and defence industries, but it's as dead as those industries are in California. And it's a wonderful composition. I followed that with a burger and ice cream (holiday, remember?) at Giraffe under the Festival Hall - when I think of the awful facilities they had in the 70's - and the Britten Ensemble with Roger Norrington waving his hands at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Purcell, Handel, Hayden, Mendelsohn, Martinu.

Oh, and I had a blinding glimpse of the obvious about the job. Plus that cold has gone. And it's only Monday.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Meditations on a Bar of Chocolate

The other evening I finished a whole 99p bar of Cadbury's Whole Nut. I have a cold, so I'm allowed to eat sugar and carbs. But I only meant to eat a couple of lines or six chunks. As if. I just finished the lot. I didn't want to rush out and buy another, but I did have to finish it.

Alcoholism is: you don't stop once you start. Addiction is: you keep choosing to start. Insisting that starting and then carrying on are choices frees the addict and the alcoholic from dependancy on “cures” or having to believe there's something “wrong” with them that needs endless therapy. It's the start of taking responsibility for yourself.

The real trick is this: even if you do want to start, you don't actually do anything about it. You can think what you like and feel what you like, as long as you don't have that first drink, drug or piece of chocolate. It's a trick because it leaves your head alone and concentrates on your actions. In the early days, it's a lot easier not to buy a drink than it is not to want one, and it's always easier not to buy chocolate than not to want it.

You can do anything alcoholically: drink, drugs, food (over-eating), buying CD's, sex, decorating, working, travelling, running, exercising, name it. Why you do it is between you and the darker reaches of your psyche. That's complicated and messy and even if you did understand it, there's no guarantee you would stop as a result. Stopping is one thing, understanding is another. How you stop is easy – don't start. One day at a time.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Great London Pretty Girl Puzzle

I've just come back from a brief business trip to a Town Outside the M25 with some of the lads from work. And we were all reminded of the Great London Girl Puzzle. Which is this...

There may be some dazzlers out in the E-something postcodes, but where I and everyone I know lives and works, there are no pretty girls. There are women with trim figures, some Eastern Europeans with that fragile and quick-burning glamour, but no pretty girls. Not like Brighton, Chester, Nottingham, Newcastle or Hull. This is not just my opinion: I've checked it out with any number of the lads at work and we all feel the same way. It's a London thing, not a girl thing.

(Note: in what follows, “girls” means “female between the age of eighteen and when they start looking worn or maternal who are studying, have or trying to get proper paying jobs”. “Lads” means “male who is studying, has or trying to get a proper job and between the age of eighteen and when they start taking themselves seriously or have seriousness forced on them”.)

There are a number of theories about why. Mine is that a working in London is now the second or third job you do – you have to do somewhere in the sticks and suburbs first. So that means the girls are about twenty-four to twenty-six before they make it up to the Smoke. They've been working for five years already and have a nasty feeling they are going to be doing this shit for the rest of their lives. This may make for character, but it does not make for pretty. Now I think about it, women in the Oughties look like men did in the Fifties and Sixties: trapped, strained and forcing the fun.

What about the students? Central London should be full of them. There's the LSE, Imperial, Kings, UCL, Birkbeck, SSOA and on and on. Well, those colleges have been selling themselves to foreign students for the money. They also draw from London's multicultural population. So the pretty English girls come down on the open day, see lots of people not-like-them, and choose Hull or Newcastle instead.

The best, due to a fellow lad at work, is this. In the old days, pretty English girls came from the country to the Big Smoke for the freedom, the fun and the money. The jobs they did are now being done by Aussies, Kiwis, Latvians and Russians. Who are harder, more ambitious and not as pretty. Added to which, they can find the freedom, fun and often a better quality of life outside London. So the pretty girls don't come to London anymore.

The London girls have to look credible at work, because they want careers. So they dress, groom and prepare themselves with the same care and attention as the men. De minimus, in other words. There are a few exceptions: the impact Melissa Deep had on a roomful of male telecoms account managers had to be seen to be believed (honeypot, a, round, bees, like). There was only one of Ms Deep in the whole London scene.

Maybe the London boys aren't that worth the effort. After all, unless they're City Boys, they aren't paid enough to set up a decent life, and if they are City Boys, they have other issues. And maybe the girls come to London to get away from the whole marriage, children and family thing. Resigned to a life of unending salaried work, she could give a damn if she partners up or not.

Monday, 19 October 2009

A Brush With the UCAS Personal Statement

Yet another hour on the phone with my nephew discussing his Personal Statement. For those who
graduated a long time ago, applying to university has got a whole lot more bureaucratic. Also it's online. Part of the application is the aforesaid Personal Statement, which is a 4000-character (!) essay on yourself and why you want to study whatever it is wherever it is. Only you can't tailor it university by university, so it has to be carefully neutral about the institution.

Preparing for an earlier draft, I asked the Young Folk at work what they did for their statements. My manager said he talked a lot about his extra-curricular activities - which made sense since he's that sort of person (an invaluable part of the Sports and Social Club, Fire Warden). An even younger analyst said he talked about why he liked the subject and a little bit about his pastimes, but had also put in paragraphs relating the other subjects he did at A-level to the one he wanted to study.

The Nephew has the same genetic difficulty presenting himself as I do, his mother does and all his grandparents do or did. We just don't do sharing ourselves – our thoughts and ideas, yes, but ourselves, no. (Look carefully at my entries on this blog: are they about me or are they reports of my passing thoughts and opinions?) He wants to study history and if you talk to him for ten minutes you will hear his interest in the subject. For god's sake he's read books about the early Crusades.

My only contribution has been a) editing, and b) asking questions. Plus of course patience and a little knowledge of and sympathy for the awful struggles going on inside the poor lad. I bought him 40 Successful Personal Statements: For UCAS Application, which on first pass scared the living daylights out of me and then, having realised that they teach even less grammar and writing technique than they did when I went to school, The Complete Plain Words. But then I buy everybody that.

Maybe some people can just write about themselves and why they want to study Serbo-Croat and Theoretical Physics. If you asked me what I wanted to study Mathematics and Philosophy I might have said something like “Logic”, but the simple answer was that I'd started out with Electrical Engineering (vocation) and then read some philosophy and knew that was it. It made sense to me in a way that nothing else ever had or ever has. I'm guessing that's the way my nephew feels about history. But how do you say that in boilerplate? And without opening up a question you couldn't answer? Yet it's the best answer there is.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Middle-Class Chavs

Right, I'm going to get this off my chest once and for all. It's not nice to talk about class or style and the English – unless you're being rude about the rich, wealthy and stylish, of course. The proper view is that the moral worth, personal charm and pleasance of a person cannot be known by outward signs but only by keeping their company on their terms. This is, of course, the most arrant bosh but it goes down well. It's true that none of us are on interview form all day and all of us would like to be able to take back the odd first impression. But some people go way past this. They thought about what they did to make this list and so they don't get excused.

Dreadful Parents, pushing their huge strollers and frustrated, wailing children round suburban shopping centres; Commuter Chompers, desperately scarfing down Burger Kings on the later evening commuter trains; Pavement-Blocking Paula and Friends, walking slowly four wide on narrow London pavements as if there are no other people in the world; Tennants Terry, drinking himself inebriate on his way home and stinking the place out with booze fumes; Popcorn Peter, chomping away in the seat behind me at the cinema; Mobile-Phone Mandy, making her social arrangements so, like, we can all hear her; Chanting Colin and Scarf-Waving Wally on their way to a football match; Wales-Supporter Clive and all those self-satisfied overweight bozos who fill Richmond and Twickenham after a rugby match. Anyone who drives an SUV. There are probably a hundred more, but those are the ones who appear in my little world.

Some of these people earn six-figure sums as consultants at Accenture, BBC bureaucrats, senior civil servants and soi-disant senior managers in local councils. I don't care where they went to school or what Daddy-in-Law does for a living. They are middle-class chavs.

Dreadful Parents should leave their children with their friends (oh, wait, maybe they have no...). Pavement-blocking Paula is doing it deliberately (she's in London, it's busy, don't tell me she hasn't noticed). You have to live in the area to know what a pain Wales-Supporter Clive is. Commuter Chompers? Tennants Terry? Popcorn Peter? Mobile Phone Mandy? SUV Drivers? We're in agreement here.

Chavism is not about accent, education or undesirable post code. It's about a gross and wilful lack of style, taste, manners and consideration. And no, it's not a wonky little part of them. It's who they are through and through. And I don't care if they do love their cat and randomly donate to charity.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Vanilla Shakes at Ed's

I took this very early one Thursday morning at the start of the Oughties, on my way to Tower Hill and all things AT&T. Thursday was "routing day" when I tipped up early to get the LCR analysis done before the crowd appeared and distracted me. I was using a simple camera and analogue film. But when it works, it works.

Yup, it's a photograph because I felt so down today I had a vanilla shake from Ed's in Soho. There's nothing wrong with the shakes at Ed's - in my not-so-humble opinion, they're the best in town, and priced accordingly. It's just that I don't want sugar when I'm feeling okay. I'll blame the weather and the darker evenings. At least I'm two-thirds of my way through the Phenomenology.

Monday, 12 October 2009

On AA Birthdays

There's another reason I'm feeling odd and unsettled and my diet still has too many carbs and and and. It's almost my AA Birthday. My last drink was Saturday 9th October 1993, when I went to see Sleepless In Seattle with an attractive former colleague. I had one or two glasses of wine and it felt like someone was scraping the inside of my skull with a fork. I called the AA telephone office at ten o'clock that Monday and went to my first meeting on Wednesday 13th October 1993. I haven't had a drink or a drug since that Saturday but I count the 13th as my AA birthday. Of course, the programme is one-day-at-a-time, so no day is supposed to be special, but sobriety birthdays have a meaning way beyond what we call a “belly button birthday”. All that time ago, I made this huge decision because I felt my life was totally f....d. I was tired of being drunk, I was tired of being tired and I was tired of thinking it was all my fault, that I was useless, that I didn't understand the world and was making no progress in it. I had no idea what relationship drinking bore to any of that because my drinking never took me anywhere dangerous or illegal and I never harmed anyone as a result of it (I pissed plenty of people off, but pissed off isn't being harmed.) I was, of course, way more emotionally jerry-built than I had any idea at the time. It's taken me years to sort all that stuff out. Sometimes I wonder if I ever will. Someone said something at my meeting the other week: as an alcoholic, you survive, but you don't rise. And that's what comes back to haunt me. I crashed and I've got back to where I was, but I never get any further. Most of the time I can ignore that. But on my birthday, it looms large.

Friday, 9 October 2009

The A - Z Classical Music Project

A couple of years ago my morale was really low and only started to recover when I thought up a little project. One CD by a composer I had never heard of before from each letter of the alphabet: it had to be budget-price and on the shelves of the old Tower Records on Piccadilly Circus and I had to buy it on a Friday evening after work. I could buy in any order. This was how it went:

Anton Arensky, Piano Trios, Chandos
Rutland Boughton, Oboe and String Quartets, Helios
Doreen Carwithn, ODTAA and Others, Chandos
Francois Devienne, Four Bassoon Concertos, CPO
Giles Farnaby, Complete Fantasias for Harpsichord, Naxos
Francesco Geminiani, Cello Sonatas Op 3, L'Oiseau-Lyre
Johann Hasse, Salve Regina, Arkiv
Akira Ifukube, Ritmica Ostinata / Symphonic Fantasia 1, Naxos
Hyacinthe Jadin, Sonates pur pianoforte, Harmonia Mundi
Ivan Khandoshkin, Violin Music, Naxos
Thomas Linley, Music For the Tempest etc, Helios
George Muffat, Florilegium Secundum, L'Oiseau-Lyre
Ernesto Nazareth, Tangos, Waltzes and Polkas, Naxos
Georges Onslow, String Quartets Op 9, CPO
Giovanni Platti, Six Flute Sonatas, Op 3, Naxos
Max Reger, Four Sonatos for Unaccompanied Violin, Dorian Recordings
Johannes Schenk, Le Nymphe de Rheno Op 8 Vol 2, Naxos
Ernst Toch, Tanz-Suite etc, Naxos
Leopoldo de Urcullu, Guitar Music, Naxos
Henri Vieuxtemps, Cello Concerto No 1 and 2, EMI Classics
Unico Van Wassenaer, Six Concerti Armonici, apex
Iannis Xenakis, Various, apex
Eugene Ysaye, Six Sonatas for Solo Violin, Helios
Jan Zelenka, The Lamentations of Jeremiah, Helios

I called it quits after five months in Spring '08. No E. It turns out every composer beginning with an E who isn't Enescu is Elgar. The most commonly-used letter in the English language has the least number of composers. There was Thomas Quilter, but I just can't do historical English folk songs. I did cheat slightly: the Reger was in my collection before I started, but I hadn't heard of him when I bought it. I had heard of Xenakis (who hasn't?) but it was an excuse to buy a CD of his stuff. A couple of weeks after I bought the Carwithen, I heard it on Radio Three. That happened again with the Linley. If you're going to do this, you have to stop listening to Radio Three.

Sadly Tower Records has been no more for a long while now, which means that Central London has nowhere good to browse through classical music. To Amazon we all have to go.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Ed Hamrick at VueScan

This is a shameless plug for a product which, and a developer who, deserves it.

I have a Canon N656U scanner and neat, slim piece of kit it is as well. It doesn't play nice with Snow Leopard – neither does my Samsung U600 which I free-upgraded to way before I bought the MacBook (what's wrong with companies? Don't they know to co-operate with Apple?) - so I paid for Ed Hamrick's VueScan program, which lets my scanner work with my Mac. Until recently when it decided to produce a whole bunch of gibberish. I sent Ed a mail like as his site suggests, and was amazed when, as promised, he replied personally. We've been going back and forth for a while on it. The IT Support desk at work would have given up on the second or third exchange of mails. Ed kept going through a number of cycles and we've sorted the problem (I hope – electronic gadgets have minds of their own). So VueScan and its creator gets my whole-hearted recommendation.

VueScan is here

Monday, 5 October 2009


There's a feeling we ACoA's have: there's no point in going away because you have to come back to exactly what you left. That's what I felt today, first day back after a two-week holiday. It hit me like a brick wall at half-past three and I spent a long while deciding I'd go to a movie after work, naaahhh, I'd go home, naaaahhh, I'd go to a meeting, naaahhh, I'd go home, and so on round in circles. I ate a chocolate brownie at tea-time for God's sake. I never do that. Almost never do that. The grey skies and drizzle didn't help much either. Nothing had changed at work, but I'd become sensitive to it. I can tolerate the place, especially when I think of the hours, the location and the fact that I don't work too hard for the money.

(Sandbachs, Poole, Olympus OM10 (I think))

But I don't really want to be there. People show up at my desk and have conversations with me and I know I've talked to them before but I have no idea who they are, what they do and as for names? It's not just me: others feel the same. I just take it to an extreme. When I know where I want to be, really want to be this time, not just “anywhere-but-not-here”, then I'm going to do whatever it takes. As it was, I did what a good alkie should do and went to a six o'clock meeting nearby. I shared exactly this stuff and started to understand what I was feeling. As a result, I started to feel better. Tomorrow, I get my act back together. Now, if only this craving for chocolate would go away.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Attempts to Read The Phenomenology of Mind

A long time ago, when I was younger and my brain allegedly worked faster, I attempted to read the Critique of Pure Reason and gave up, put off by the sheer unreadability of the thing. I decided that I would go to my grave never having read it, got over it and moved on. Recently I have been attempting (no other verb will do) The Phenomenology of Mind. I have read The Philosophy of History and The Philosophy of Right, I've even flipped the pages on the Aesthetics and that looks readable, but the Phenomenology leaves me confused.

Why bother reading it at all? First, for much the same reason that you should sit through all Wagner's operas at least once: Hegel is to philosophy what Wagner is to music. You don't have to like it, use it or even understand all the finer points, but you do need to have experienced it. Second, there's a chance that Hegel really was trying an approach to the human experience of knowledge that is worth understanding.

Since the early Eighties, philosophers haven't really bothered with the older problems of epistemology. The philosophy of science taught us all that the old discussion of defining knowledge, belief, justification and evidence are not as important as explaining why Quantum Electrodynamics is a serious scientific theory, evolutionary psychology is pseudo-science, classical dynamics is useful engineering (while being false physics), epidemiology is a shoddy and confused misuse of everything from statistics to the taxpayer's money, and why String Theory is just on the right side of speculative theorising while phrenology isn't. It's fair to say that before Popper, philosophers thought about knowledge as a personal possession, while after it, they recognised that it's theories and their methodological status that matter, not what's in people's heads or how it got there.

Hegel wanted to describe the experience of knowing and understanding and of the interaction of concepts. He saw knowledge as a process, not as a book of words: knowledge is something people do as well as have. This is an interesting approach, taken by Imre Lakatos in Proofs and Refutations, where he describes informal (that is, as actually done by mathematicians) mathematics as a process of proposing proofs and counterexamples for theorems. Lakatos, as a good post-Popperian, is talking about theories; Hegel is still inside our heads.

No-one has to read the Phenomenology, it's just that you're missing a lot of context if you don't. The catch is that the bloody thing is practically unreadable. Where Kant leaves you gasping for oxygen, Hegel leaves you dizzy. There's a slight possibility that it's all a fraud written under the influence of nitrous oxide or some other substance (he wouldn't be the only one – Freud wrote under the influence of good medical cocaine). Or there's a chance he's saying something genuinely different that even German has trouble expressing.

But here's the thing: I have an utterly clear conscience about not reading the Critique of Pure Reason, whereas I don't about leaving the Phenomenology on the shelf. Continental philosophers all made the effort and all got something out of it - even if it was nothing Hegel may have put there. It influenced and informed their thinking - and I guess I'd like to share in that.