A Child’s View

Sometimes we forget what the world looks like to other people.

Fortunately the ever simplification of taking photographs allows us to put a camera in the hands of quite small people and every now and then they are able to remind us in the most glorious, heart stopping way. Most of the pictures are not particularly composed well, but they are digital so it doesn’t cost anything and gives the little person a sense of pride and achievement. But every now and then this very innocence and different view of the worlds results in a picture that makes one stop and realise just how we take things for granted now that we are grown up.

I remember as a child having to stretch up to reach the light switch in my bedroom- that light switch is probably no higher than my navel, but at the time it was a great stretch. As my kids grow up I see the same behaviour: As winter has drawn in and it gets darker earlier in the evening so my 4 year old now needs someone to come upstairs with him. Not because he is scared but because he can’t reach the light switch.

The attached picture was taken by him with a Nikon D40 whilst we were on holiday. It may not be the best technical shot (everything was on automatic) and it may not be framed perfectly but it really made me stop and realise just how he sees me. Not as a regular sized person, but this strange, towering creature who reaches down to hold his hand.

I hope I can hold his hand for a long time to come. Even when I stop towering over him.

Quality shops, Discount shops and shoes

I want to watch something as the economy of the world heads into
complete meltdown. No, I don’t mean the sight of bankers being
evicted from their multi-million dollar homes (though that will raise
a wry smile); what I am curious to see is what sector of the economy
is able to ride the downturn out best: Will it be the ‘discount’
sector as more people look to save and are forced to shop for the
cheapest solution or will it be the ‘quality’ sector as people take a
long term view or simply wish to reward themselves with a little
luxury in these troubled times.

There are any number of economists who will have a point of view
on this question, but my inspiration for thinking upon the subject
was simply the act of putting on a pair of shoes. And no, I hadn’t
been eating too much strong cheese the night before, because as a
good friend of mine has said, there is no proof that strong cheese
results in odd dreams (and she should know, she does this sort of
thing for a living). These particular shoes are quite old and were
purchased when I was

  1. single
  2. working overseas (though I recognise that this does not
    narrow down the timeline)
  3. had a bit more money than sense

The shoes are made by Church & Son and are made with leather
uppers, leather soles and leather interiors. They took a long time to
properly break in (and I followed the instructions to only wear them
every other day so as not to damage the leather) but finally they
became a complete and total fit around my feet. I think that the
shoes are probably nearly 10 years old, maybe more and have seen
significant service throughout that time. Over the years they slowly
lost their shine and were replaced by less expensive shoes, but every
now and then I find the need to wear them again. And each time I do I
am astounded by just how much better they feel than any of my other
shoes.

So the question is whether or not sufficient people will pay the
rather large amount of money to support an out-and-out luxury store
like Church’s or will they ride out the downturn in their existing
shoes and buy whatever they need at Matalan/ Primark/ Winners.
Current evidence in the UK is that supermarkets with a ‘value’
approach (such as Aldi, Lidl or Morrison’s) are winning the battle
from the middle ground stores (such as Tesco) whilst the higher end
(such as Waitrose or Sainsbury) also seem to be riding it out. I
guess that there really is something to the old adage of doing
something different to stand out from the crowd- it doesn’t matter if
you are high end or low end, just don’t go for ‘normal’

And if ever there was a mantra to live your life to, then surely
that is one that I have followed. Whether I wanted to or not

Seniors in film

There is not much of a market for films about the elderly. At least not much of a market for films that even vaguely attempt to portray the truth about getting and being old. However, every now and then there comes along a film that is worth watching for the way in which it captures the human spirit with all the frailty of old age. I know of only one film that I can wholeheartedly recommend in this genre and one that has moments of beauty and an acting performance worthy of the Oscar nomination that Peter O’Toole received.

I’ll start with Venus. It stars Peter O’Toole and even in his old age he is still as mesmeric on screen as ever (well almost, advancing age has taken its toll somewhat).Without giving away any of the plot, the story shows how two old men are accepting of their decline and at the same time they rail against it. How they need each other for support and find comradeship in people of the same age, whilst  one of them in particular yearns for the love and company of the young.

This relationship in particular brings the level of discomfort that both brings the real drama and also prevents the film from reaching the heights of The Straight Story. The Straight Story was directed by David Lynch, he of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks fame. Which is what makes a story about an old man and his estranged brother all the more touching. The pacing is slow, as befitting the movement of the lead actor; the action is small scale and the denouement so subtle as to leave you feeling that you missed something. But as with Venus the performance of the lead actor, in this case Richard Farnsworth, is outstanding. There is no overarching intention of the film, just a simple, honest story that should warm the heart of even the most jaded cynic.

We all get older each day- some have the grace to accept old age and some fight against it. But finding films, in particular The Straight Story, that show a possible vision of all our futures and still bring a tear to the eye, a warmth to the heart and a smile on your face; well that is a true demonstration of the arts of story telling and film making

Food and the reactions we have

There is (at least I hope I can still talk in the present tense) a radio show called “I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue” that has been running on Radio 4 for over 30 years. The premise of the show is that the 4 comedians will be ‘given silly things to do’ and will largely improvise the results. The games are legion and varied, frequently made up and usually fully in compliance with the objective of the show of being silly. Each listener will have their own favourite game, moment or line from the show- one of my favourites comes from the game where the contestants had to (incorrectly) complete a well known phrase: The expression supplied was “Too many cooks …” and most english speakers will correctly complete this as “spoil the broth”, but not on ISIHAC: the expression that is now indelibly imprinted on my mind is “Too many cooks …. on television”

Which is not to say that all cooking shows are bad or that many of the cooks on television are not engaging characters, but the wall to wall exposure to cooking shows does tend to dilute the fact that in many cases they are serving a very valuable public service, as well as entertaining us. In the UK Jamie Oliver is as well known for his campaign to improve the quality of food served to our children in school as he is for his restaurants, Delia Smith has taught a nation to cook and Gordon Ramsey has… well OK, Gordon Ramsey is a bit of a tosser, but you get the idea. What this massive exposure to all these cooks has done is improve the awareness of good food- as far as I can tell this is happening all over; certainly the UK, Canada and Netherlands now have far more restaurants serving quality food than ever before (Of course, with the impending economic crisis that statement may not be true for much longer, but that is the future- I can only comment on what I see)

I have eaten at a handful of high end restaurants, a whole load of middle range establishments and my fair share of places that may provide sustenance but really do little to provide a pleasurable, sensory experience. Which makes it all the more wonderful when you try something new and are stopped in your tracks. Now this is nothing like the experience that Julia Stiles had: She had been a vegan for a while but then reverted to omnivore. When Conan O’Brien asked her what the first post-vegan bite of a hamburger was like she responded, “The word orgasm comes to mind.”

My experience was not so earth shattering (or should that be earth moving?) but I certainly uttered a moan of pleasure this evening: I was doing my duty to my body and eating some smoked, oily fish (cold smoked mackerel for anyone interested. Nope, thought not). Not a great delicacy by most peoples definition, but this one was seasoned with honey and soy. Not only was I not expecting it but the mixture of these two tastes on the fish was outstanding.

And that is all I have to say on the matter; hey, what can I say? It was a slow news day

Why I am a fan of the Chicago Cubs

Sport plays a significant role in my life: I will play it, watch it and talk about it until long after the cows have come home. But how did someone from England fall hook, line and sinker for the Chicago Cubs? I can trace it all back to a single letter that was published in The International Herald Tribune in 1990 (I think). I kept the letter and read it from time to time to remind me of the power and beauty of words. So, with all rights reserved to Stuart Silverstein of Los Angeles I reprint it here

Ballplayers who lose with panache

It was gratifying to see your coverage (July 11) of the baseball All Star Game. However, the assertion that former President Ronald Reagan, a guest commentator for the broadcast, once “did radio commentaries for the Chicago Cubs before going onto greater things in Hollywood and Washington” is, if cute and facile, also inaccurate.

The Chicago Cubs hold a peculiar yet warm place in the American psyche. They lose with regularity and panache. The last time they went to the World Series was in 1945, when most of the better players listened from bases in the South Pacific during the war against Japan.

Play is in a 75-year-old “bandbox” ballpark, with one of the smallest seating capacities in the Major Leagues. But Wrigley Field- note it is a field– has brick walls covered with ivy. It has real grass. It did not have lights until last year and still hosts most games in the afternoon.

It is also in the centre of the city, and there is not enough parking. An order of nuns pays most of its expenses by parking cars on its grounds, with habited sisters directing fans to slots with the assurance of the most experienced traffic cops. The cost? “Whatever you want to give, dear. Enjoy the game.”

Wrigley Field’s crowd noise is distinctly higher pitched than other; there is less drunkenness and rowdyism, and more families enjoy going to games. Foreign fans encounter culture shock. There is no electronic message to tell spectators when to cheer; balls sometimes get trapped in the ivy. In the Sixties a ball went into the ivy, and when the pursuing outfielder shook it two fell out.

The wall also has pointless little nooks and crannies which cause balls to bounce crazily away from fielders. The dimensions are cosy; when the wind is blowing out, so do the baseballs.

The club represents not only Chicago, but also the Midwest, where a fierce historical rivalry between the Cubs and St Louis Cardinals has split families and divided friends. Roand Reagan covered Cubs games for a small Iowa radio station by reading the action from the wire.

It may seem silly or, at least misguided, to append such lofty sentiments to a business engaged in the baseball trade, but then sentiment has little to do with reason. The Cubs are 113 years old. Wrigley Field was two months old when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo. Two world wars and innumerable social and political upheavals have occurred since. But the game goes on. Are Hollywood and Washington “greater things”? I doubt it

I read this whilst shooting a seismic survey in what I guess to be July 1990. The following year I flew to Chicago to see the Cubs play. I didn’t have any tickets or anywhere to stay or even any ideas of the rules of baseball. I landed on a Friday and asked the cab driver when the Cubs were playing his reply that “they’re on the road for a week” was a perfect example of the complete and utter lack of planning to my trip.

But a week later I saw the Cubs play, in Wrigely Field. And I became more than ever before lost in the support of a team that will almost certainly bring me more disappointment than joy. My support of the Cubs has outlasted 2 careers and 1 marriage. It has survived living on 2 continents, evolved from scrabbling around in the small print of a newspaper to find the box score to following detailed ball by ball coverage on the internet. But through all of that, the Cubs have still not gone to the World Series, despite coming incredibly close on at least 1 occasion. So why do I still follow them? I guess we just all live in hope- either that or I am the ultimate incurable romantic

BBC drama

Aah, the end of a long silence. Brought about entirely by a lack of enthusiasm for writing a blog- my admiration for professional writers, in particular my good friend Clive Gifford, goes up once again. I have had many, many thoughts and inspiration; just a singular lack of enthusiasm to do anything about it. But now, to use a famous quote “I’m baaack!” and starting gentle with a post on TV:

I don’t know whether it was nurture or nature but given a choice I will almost always choose the ‘national broadcaster’ of a particular country. This means that I forgive the BBC for its ridiculous funding mechanism, I am humour the CBC and the way it treats its journalists and I even had found time for ZDF (even though I didn’t understand much of what was going on).  Also, I enjoy drama shows- throw in the occasional piece of humour into the mix and I am in hog heaven- so I should love vast amounts of the BBC output. But why is it that the only show I currently set my PVR (TiVo) for is an American show from 2006 that has since been cancelled (Jericho)? I have really tried to get into several british shows, including one that stars one of my favourite actresses but there is just no edge to Mutual Friends– the situations seem contrived, the characters make me cringe more than care and the overall storyline has degraded to the point that I just don’t care. Consequently, the show gets deleted without even watching.

I know that I may have posed this question before, but where have the good shows gone? Showtime, HBO et al seem to produce some truly wonderful television- please don’t tell me that the equivalent in the UK is Sky because I really don’t want to go down that route.

A Batman’s Review of the Dark Knight

Of all the super heroes, Batman has always been my favourite. Possibly something to do with my name and the obvious nick-name generated from it, but who says there needs to be justification for being a fan (after all I also support Arsenal and for years there was no justification for that). I went to see the first Tim Burton/ Michael Keaton Batman as part of my 21st birthday celebrations and was very impressed with the reboot of the franchise by Christopher Nolan/ Christian Bale. So the Dark Knight was high on the list of ‘must see’ films for the summer.

The short summary is that the film more than lives up to its predecessor- other critics have said it was over-long, but I didn’t notice that. What I really liked, but what also prompted this post, is the way that the villains are far more grounded in realism than any of the previous incarnations of Batman: By this I mean that Two-Face is verging on the horrific, especially when you first see his face. And this is the problem- my kids have been watching the trailer for the Dark Knight for months now and their excitement has been palpable, but there is no way that I can take either of them to see the film. In the UK it is rated as a ’12’ which means that children under 12 can see the film, but only if accompanied by a responsible adult. Now each child that an adult is responsible for is different, and we are all too aware of the loss of innocence in our children, but I am going to take a stand and not allow my kids to see the Dark Knight. Not yet anyway.

As a grown up I can see the Dark Knight and think it is a fantastic film, but just as ‘comic books’ grew up and became ‘graphic novels’, so are the super hero films growing up. There is a complete logic to this- the people now making these films may have read your father’s comics as children, but as they grew up so did the comics: Writers such as Frank Miller rebooted Batman and then went onto write novels such as Sin City, Alan Moore and David Lloyd wrote V for Vendetta and then Alan Moore teamed up with Dave Gibbons for Watchmen; and then Neil Gaiman created the Sandman. None of these are in any way your father’s comics; some have overtly political overtones, all involve copious and gratuitous amounts of violence and a few are clearly verging on what would typically be called horror.

What these graphic novels have in common is that there are often costumed or ‘cartoon’ characters, but unlike the camp Batman of the 1960’s there is no ‘Thwock, Kapow, Crash’ involved. There is real violence, death (sometimes real, sometimes off-screen) and all the other trappings of a grown up world. This would be fine were the films marketed at adults (as Sin City was), but when Burger King is including Dark Knight toys in its Happy Meal kids meal then the marketing department is creating a disconnection between the product (the film) and the audience they are targeting (I don’t know many 12 year olds who still eat Happy Meals).

So here is my take, for what it’s worth: the Dark Knight is a damned good summer film, but if you have children, go see it for yourself first before taking them along. And if you don’t have children, go see it anyway- it is what films based on graphic novels have evolved into- you may not like it and you may wish to head back to the ‘Golden Age’ of comics but that is what your DVD collection is for.

Ben’s School Photo 2008




Ben’s School Photo 2008

Originally uploaded by maguffyn

Been a while, but he has kept growing in the meantime. And who says you can’t get a decent photo from a school photographer.

Or maybe I am just biased towards my kid

And for anyone interested there are various other updates to the photo gallery- both kids are still being snapped and now I have a new camera (well, not that new, but better than I had before) they are trapped until I get a decent shot

Dating, appearances and boys & girls

I don’t consider myself to be particularly good looking- which is not a subtle fish for compliments, but simply a statement of my belief system (see, I do believe in some things). And now that I am divorced I am facing the prospect of diving back into the heady world of dating, which is more than an little scary. Fortunately, since I last had to venture into this shark infested water there has been a radical change in the whole process, and one that is becoming more and more socially acceptable: internet dating. Not the actual dating via the internet- even to me that seems a step too far, but the process of meeting someone has been dragged kicking and screaming out of the nearest pub and into the dark and murky world of the interweb.

There are many sites that allow you to post your personal details and who you would like to meet, and after a little while searching it seems that there are enough George Clooney lookalikes to fill a small stadium. This is the downside to writing your own profile (you can lie) and has led to sites such as My Single Friend where someone else fills in the details and describes you.

This seems to me to be a better approach- someone else might be a little more objective and at least you have a brother in arms as you throw your hat into the ring. But in the interests of making sure I was going to get a fair deal I thought I’d have a search first to see ‘what was out there’: I fired up My Single Friend and entered in my location (Gloucestershire for those playing along at home) and my preferred age range (36-42) and the fact that I am a boy looking for a girl. A couple of clicks later I had 89 possible dates. Many of them very good looking, most had fun personalities etc etc And almost all of them had posted a photo, many of the looking like they had been taken by a professional (or at least talented amateur) photographer.
This is all great, but remember the first sentence of this post? What would any of these 89 women want to do with me? (Answers on a comment please- I promise to read them all but will only post anything suitable for a family audience!) As I looked at the photos there were glamourous women, dressed up and looking wonderful. Me? I have skinny legs, no chin to talk off, an odd taste in TV shows and have apartments in 3 countries on 2 continents- surely there is better on offer than that? Right then, time to check out the competition…

Back to the search page: Same location, same preferred age range, now say that I am girl looking for a boy (oh the wonders of internet anonimity): This time I only got 31 hits; maybe Sex and the City had it correct after all about all these single women out there. But for the guys, only half the profiles had photographs- hmm, maybe all the “George Clooney’s” didn’t actually match up in the flesh. And those that did have photos were far from the professional shots that the women had. These were snapshots of guys ‘doing things’ like sailing, drinking or catching some rays between runs on the ski hill. Furthermore, feeling confident in my sexuality, I think I can objectively rate the guys compared with the women and say that we, as men, really aren’t as good looking as the ladies. So maybe there is hope for me after all: the slightly fuzzy photo of me taken by my 4 year-old son will be OK and I can advertise my prehensile tongue and take it from there.

And yet… there is a bigger question here. And that bastion on all things non-PC Jeremy Clarkson may have put his finger on it on Top Gear last week: He pointed out that there was a recent survey to find the ‘Sexiest Racing Driver’ (well it had to be somewhat about cars, didn’t it). I am pretty sure that Danica Patrick came top of the survey, but that is not the point that Clarkson was making: There are cases of male sportsmen being lauded for their looks and fashion sense (David Beckham springs to mind and Freddie Ljunberg is more well in the US for advertising Calvin Klein underwear than kicking a football for Arsenal, West Ham or Sweden) but these are isolated incidents: Wander past a magazine store and you can see photos of Maria Sharapova or Ana Ivanovic in a bikini, Danica Patrick smouldering as she leans on a car or Natalie Gulbis trying to sell you the latest ‘Big Boy Driver’. And this doesn’t even include the sportswomen who have taken everything off to appear in Playboy.
I have no answer to this difference- the guys are judged, even by their friends, on what they do and if they look good then that is a bonus. The women seem to make far more of an effort on the appearance- and in some cases (Anna Kournikova) the look far outweighs the performance. Maybe there is still hope for me after all. Once again: Answers on a comment 🙂

Complexity in Creation

Creating something, anything, that can be admired, enjoyed or simply used involves things that the admirer or user is frequently entirely unaware of. I remember sitting in a meeting with all the bright IT people at a mid-sized oil company and ideas, problems and solutions were being thrown out at a dizzying rate. By the way, I do mean all the bright people- in three years of working there it was the one and only time I saw everyone in the same room working to solve a single problem. What intensely complex problem was all this brainpower trying to solve? Simply to stop the need for a user to type in a password twice- yup that was all, but it took all of us to work out how to do this. Now this is also a reflection on the complexity of systems and the fact that unlike 300 years when an intelligent man (and unfortunately it was all too often only a man) could know the entire sum of human knowledge, no-one knows everything today. But as the solution began to develop I passed a note to the Chief Technical Architect that said “Nola has no idea what we are going through to solve her problem”

Well, it is the same in all forms of life: I listen to music and buy what I like, look at art (and even manage to buy the occasional painting) and watch movies and television (though I prefer to wait and watch them on DVD without any adverts). But really, I have no idea what goes into painting a masterpiece, composing a piece of music lift you out of you seat or directing a scene in a show that works so perfectly that you smile to yourself afterwards. Fortunately, though this lack of understanding does not stop me from appreciating them: the Rijksmuseum has a small (very secure) extension at Amsterdam Schiphol airport that is currently exhibiting 8 pictures by Vincent van Gogh. Having more than $10 million of painting in front of you is something that I could get used to, even if I don’t understand all the complexities of how the pictures were created. And the fact that entrance to the Rijksmuseum is free simply is the icing on the cake.

I get more opportunity to watch television than gaze at impressionist masterpieces; and still following through with my resolution to only watch ‘worthwhile’ television I recently watched the last 2 seasons (6 & 7) of the West Wing. When it first arrived on TV in 1998 the West Wing set the bar for smart, well written, well acted and fantastically produced television. And though most critics felt that is suffered a drop in form during the middle of its run, by the end it was completely back to its excellent best. I think that part of the reason that the ratings did not recover was the the plot lines were so complex, the dialogue so fast (and intelligent) and the advert breaks such low quality compared to the actual program that people gave up watching the broadcast show and simply waited for the DVD to come out (apparently this also happened with Alias). So although the show was broadcast in 2005 and I only watched it in 2008, and to use a line from the West Wing- let’s not knock me for coming late to the party and celebrate the fact that I came at all (courtesy of Sam Seaborn as he attempted to explain the budget to CJ in series 2 I think).

The final strain of this thought before the denouement (bet you weren’t expecting a word like that in this blog!) concerns music and in particular jazz: Although many of my friends are firm blues fans, I have always been more of a jazz guy. I tend to take it in small quantities, but there have been times when music has had such a profound effect on me that the fact that I don’t understand the intricacies of what I am listening too are entirely irrelevant. I spent several months on the Yemen/ Saudi Arabia border in the Empty Quarter. This was before the Internet or satellite TV: the only regular contact we had with the outside world was via the BBC World Service of the Voice of America; and the conditions were not pleasant on so many levels. The fashion these days is to talk about Health, Safety, Security and the Environment (HSSE)- well given that we were exploring for oil I can safely say that the Environment was taking a hit. As for the H, S and S; let’s just say that none of them were being met- raw sewage was being dumped close to the camp, dynamite was being used to blow things up and men who were barely more than boys were walking around with AK47’s and no fear of death. In this environment music and the escape it can bring from what surrounds you is almost essential. Where the music takes you depends on what you listen to and I discovered two bands that took me in opposite directions: I had never understood the attraction of the Doors; not that is, until I was in situation with guns, explosions and living far from home. Suddenly LA Woman (the full version) could transport me far, far from where I was. Which would typically be a good thing, except that where it took me, in my mind, was to a war zone in South East Asia where the Doors were heard for the first time. And that was not a good thing.

Taking me in the other direction- to calm, peace and a more mellow place, was Miles Davis and in particular a track called Bag’s Groove. I have said several times that The Doors came close to pushing me over the edge, but Miles Davis get pulling me back (well, him and Van Morrison). I am not sure why jazz has been able to play such a role in my life but the first jazz song that had impact in my mind was probably a track called Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. I think that my father owned the 7” single and I played it a lot as a small boy. Being the contrary character that I am, I was probably attracted to it initially simply because it was in 5/4 time (and though I didn’t understand what that meant) and that sounded different. And cool. And isn’t jazz all about being cool? Sure it is.

Except that maybe I overdosed on Take Five, maybe the unusual time signature threw me off or maybe I just didn’t understand how to use rhythms, the off beat, strangeness of it all the best effect so it disappeared from my conciousness, even after the track appeared on a CD I bought. And then I saw a scene on ep. 19 of series 6 of the West Wing: Picture in your mind the scene- its a Democratic Party Gala ball in the White House. Everyone is dressed up, bright lights are creating a dazzling background and the camera is whirling around people in full party mode. The conversations are rapid, often at cross purposes but occasionally subtleties emerge that were never seen before. And in the background, in 5/4 time a clarinet, double bass, drum solo and piano are perfectly syncopating to the action evolving before our eyes.

In 4 minutes of television involving 7 separate conversations using lights, dialogue, a swirling camera, television acting of the highest level and the perfect background soundtrack I remembered why Take Five is still such groundbreaking jazz and I was completely overwhelmed by just how many components go into making a scene work the way it did. Never mind the 90 minute meeting involving a dozen or so IT geeks to work out how to pass a password to a new system, the number of people and amount of time that must have been involved in creating the West Wing is truly mind blowing. I don’t understand the complexity of 1 of the components that go together to make that scene so wonderful, and maybe if I did the beauty would be lost on me- but for right here, right now, I just love it.