Saturday, 20 December 2008

2008

AND so, we reach the end of another year. Last year, of course, was the year that changed everything - Rachel and I began dating, I graduated and then I went travelling. This year, although I travelled a great deal on a smaller scale (Estonia, Finland, Hungary and lots of train journeys to Birmingham), was all about growing up: moving to the big city, getting a proper job and being an adult for a while. It has been tough on me, not because of the growing up, but because of having to learn to adapt on my own, in an entirely different manner to that I have experienced before.

But there have been many highlights, such as the discovery of Skeptics in the Pub and the divine cheesecake that I recently received in the post (yes, Rachel really is the best). The many free BBC recordings (including Genius and The Unbelievable Truth) and Phil's ongoing saga Bertie the Flying Pig have been wonderful too.

Anyway, as ever, I've been watching the inner workings of this blog. Because I'm addicted to pointless statistics, I've been watching where the readers of this blog come from, and what they type into Google to find it. It was bizarrely but uselessly satisfying when the statistics program stated that page views were up by 300% in November (this correlated with my return from personal obscurity, so it was particularly welcome), and when it appeared that I was being vetted by the Royal Navy (I had a page view from Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory).

This year I had visitors from the UK, the USA, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Germany, Ireland, France, Netherlands, India, Brazil, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Estonia, Belgium, China, Norway, Switzerland, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Greece, Turkey, South Africa, Argentina, Slovenia, Portugal, Jamaica, Hungary, Israel, Romania, Finland, Denmark, Malaysia, Egypt, Serbia, Mexico, Vanuatu, Indonesia, Iran, Slovakia, Hong Kong, the Czech Republic, Vietnam, the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Russia, Macedonia, Chile, Sri Lanka, South Korea, the British Virgin Islands, Costa Rica, Anguilla, Lebanon, Croatia, British Indian Ocean Territory, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Ecuador.

Next year, the world!

And, as is now a tradition in the corners of blogland to which I have contributed, here is a selection of the search terms that led to this page. As ever, some of them are a bit worrying:

  • "Sue barker sexy"
    (and many permutations thereof: EIGHT of the top twenty search terms involved 'Sue Barker', 'Sexy' and 'Photos' - sorry to disappoint, tennis fans)
  • "Johnstone river crocodile farm"
    (three out of the top twenty; note my follow up post)
  • "Ay corumba"
  • "Waewae takahia"
  • "Simon says in maori"
  • "Danny Wallace"
  • "Enfield Island village"
  • "Kafka metamorphosis"
  • "Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree" and "Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson"
  • "Remy Zero Anger"
  • "Jon Ronson"
  • "A fringe of leaves"
  • "Leonardi da Vinci"
  • "Squinkers abroad"
  • "Where are the convolutions of broca?", "Carl Wernicke experiment" and "Francis gall removed cerebellum"
  • "A is for parrot which we can plainly see"
  • "Oldest human footprints Bolivia"
  • "Yes Man Singapore island"
  • "Ben Goldacre" and "Matthias Rath"
  • "Cassowary sound"
  • "Do earwigs make chutney?"
    (copyright Eddie Izzard)
  • "Steam puddings made in the marae"
  • "which Australian state capital was not named after a person?"
    (answer: Perth)
  • "Mensis intercalaris"
  • "Bruce Parry jumping over cattle"
  • "Cloudland Nature Refuge Atherton Tablelands"
  • "Did Genghis Khan conquer 1/3 of the world?"
  • "Facts about Gerald Durrell"
  • "Gugandji tribe"
  • "Ingrown toe nail pus blog"
    (I sincerely apologise)
  • "Interesting thoughts of a funny scientist"
    (I love that this links to this blog)
  • "Jesus Fiji"
  • "Orangutan news Simon Bishop"
    (eh?!)
  • "but I'm in constant terror of having cirrhosis of the liver"
    (and again, eh?!)

    And finally, and quite delightfully:
  • "Are giraffes the gayest animal?"

    And after all of my convoluted, inconclusive and pointless blogs about them, not one person came to this site searching for the Alans*.

    Roll on 2009. Already it is shaping up to be a good one - I shall begin it in a mystery location, wearing wellies.

    Merry Christmas everybody, and have a wonderful New Year.


    *More on this in 2009, I promise.
  • Thursday, 18 December 2008

    The Office Christmas Party

    BACK in October, Rachel and I went clubbing in the premier (and only) nightclub in Beaconsfield. It was a Wednesday night, I had work the next day, and I was taking antibiotics. I hadn't been in a nightclub since the Woolshed in Cairns, Australia, a year previously, and before that since 2006. Clubs just aren't my scene - I'd rather be somewhere that requires you to be less self-conscious, and able to hear what people are saying to you. In addition, the last year has done much damage to my ability to handle social situations. I knew next to nobody, and I just couldn't find a way to converse and fit in with them. I had forgotten how to dance. I couldn't drink, but somebody lovingly spiked my Coca Cola anyway. Plus the music was terrible.

    I really was quite upset about my inability to cope.

    So imagine, then, my trepidation when it came to the office Christmas party. Not only have I only just started to relax at work, but I had the stresses of getting home, fancy dress and, well, a late night to contend with. I'm getting old, you see. And did I mention I've forgotten how to dance?

    At 5.30 the entire office moved to the atrium for 'champagne' and end-of-year speeches. There was a lot of fizzy wine. The Christmas lunch had been served over the last two days in different sittings, with sandwiches provided on the alternative day. Having gone out for lunch, we now had our spare sandwiches to line our stomachs to offset the cava.

    But as we boarded the coach that had been put on to take us to the club, things momentarily got a little bit strange. The bus driver actually told me off for having food on the coach. Suddenly feeling twelve years old, I protested, saying: "I won't eat it on the bus, I promise!" and hid my sandwich in my coat. But, just like every twelve-year-old, I got the sandwich out again once out of the eyeline of the driver.

    The club was actually rather fancy. Free bubbly was handed round at the door and the bar was free all night. Canapes were brought round by waiters and waitresses, and a chocolate fountain and vodka luge kept the punters happy.

    The club was in Soho. I hadn't really known what to expect and was pleasantly surprised to find it a rather respectable place. However, while the waiters wore waistcoats and looked rather dapper, the waitresses were, to quote my colleague Isobel (who is very fond of gin), "dressed like prostitutes". It was an odd and somewhat amusing experience when one such waitress - in hotpants and basque - thrust a plate in front of us and enquired: "wedges?"

    The theme of the party was 'Glamourama', a pastiche of all things celebrity. Many made great efforts to glamourise themselves or to indulge in various celebrity desires, but no efforts had been made by our team. Unfortunately, however, the copy editors decided that the ultimate sign of celebrity culture is when boys wear make-up. I may have been attacked. Twice.

    So, wearing eye-liner, I found myself on the dancefloor. By this point I was actually relaxed. I wasn't worried about being drunk on the tube and not being able to get home, because I was in control. I wasn't worried about fancy dress, because the girls had seen to it that I looked beautiful. And I wasn't worried about not knowing how to dance because, finally, I remembered how to be the Simon of last year, before I turned into this ultra-reserved loner that I have regretably become. Katie and I warmed up our dancing shoes near the entrance and then stormed the dancefloor, tearing it up and getting on down and doing all those other things I've read about but can only assume we were doing. Satisfyingly, the whole team danced together, not caring what they looked like, just so long as they had fun. Craig seemed to particularly enjoy The Prodigy's Out of Space.

    I left at half eleven, at the same time as Elizabeth. I didn't mind leaving then - in my worry about the evening my exit strategy had been to leave much earlier, but I had had fun and stayed for my fill. But I was tired, and had a busy day the next day. As I was leaving, I could just make out Isobel shouting "more gin!"

    The following morning, a circular email from reception passed through the office. Sixty-two champagne glasses had gone missing from the atrium function.

    Sunday, 7 December 2008

    Join Me pt II (or, An Average Saturday in London)

    ...THE sun was shining, and though there was frost, I decided that it was about time I tried out my new bicycle. This is the bicycle I 'bought' in August and paid for in October, but which has sat in my living room entirely unused. My intention was to use the bike to cycle to the tube every day (or New Barnet mainline station, when I feel like going that way), cutting down my commute to a vaguely sensible time. It still hasn't happened. But it was a weekend, and I was in the mood for trying new things.

    I have never been so scared.

    What should have taken me a maximum of ten minutes took me just as long as if I had walked. Southgate may be a quiet corner of London, but it is still London, and I found myself stopping and walking at every junction and crossing as the traffic tried to edge closer to get a good look at this rare breed known as 'cyclist' (or so it felt). And to think I recently agreed to cycle from Lands End to John O' Groats.

    In central London I disembarked at Leicester Square, where I found a collective of joinees, many of whom I hadn't seen in years. Many of them had big, silly signs, the majority with the words "Free Hugs" on them. And at 2 pm, we were off, marching to Piccadilly Circus and up Regent Street, spreading the love, chocolate and general cheer.

    A note on free hugs:

    Westcountry Fun Day
    (This picture is from several years ago in Exeter)

    Now, if a random stranger came up to you and asked if you would like a hug, you'd be a little alarmed and would be seriously concerned about being mugged. But when several hundred people are all asking, and most of them have silly hats and big, silly signs asking if you would like a free hug, coupled with Christmas cheer, many people can't help but laugh and join in. We've made a lot of grannies happy over the years.

    Others at K6 yesterday gave out chocolates, Christmas cards and Christmas cheer. But before long, I had lost them, having been distracted at the start of the pedestrianised Regents Street by James Bond's Aston Martin, complete with 007 number plate. Up and down the shopping zone were street entertainers, musicians, jugglers, people on stilts, a human reindeer and a flying bicycle stencilled with the words "Love Your Mum". There were also an inordinate number of banjo and tuba combinations.

    I wandered in and out of shops, including the new and rather brilliant National Geographic store, and found my way up to Oxford Circus. Here there was a stage, with two screens and a big open red-carpeted area for the purpose of advertising the new film Australia. On stage were an excellent band called Blue Harlem, playing the music of Ray Charles and the like, with professional dancers (I would guess) leading members of the public and shaking their stuff. It was really fun to watch.

    I watched for a couple of numbers, until the band suddenly stopped and announced the arrival of Baz Luhrmann, the director of Australia (and also Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet). To a lukewarm applause (let's be honest, who really knows what Baz Luhrmann looks like?), he came on stage to speak about Australia and australia (sentence case is important). Then he announced a competition - a dance off for the public for two pairs of tickets to the film's premiere: one pair for the best dancing couple; one pair for the silliest.

    The band struck up, and many brave individuals took to the floor (which, if you remember, was the middle of the road). The eventual winners were magnificent, particularly the adorable two-and-a-half-year-old girl who pirouetted around her father and was lifted up to the cheers of the crowd at the end. I stayed for the final song, watching the professional couples and trying to take artistic photos in the lens of the spotlight, and then wandered off down Oxford Street.

    I have always gone down only one half of Oxford Street so, in the spirit of adventure, I decided to see what lay the other way (oh yes, I have wild adventures). Aesthetically, I wasn't impressed. This end of Oxford Street is far less impressive than the other. The buildings suddenly become concrete monstrosities, the shops suddenly became the same as any high street in the rest of the country. But there were live models in the Calvin Klein window of John Lewis, a steel band playing Christmas carols and I randomly found the High Commission of the Republic of Botswana. There were also interesting side streets, stalls and a very long queue outside Abercrombie and Fitch on Saville Row, where I suddenly, somehow, found myself.

    And then to the pub. The entire Pitcher and Piano had been booked for Join Me, where much drinking and merriment occurred. It was great to see some old friends and to finally talk to some familiar faces from previous years: Lou and Team Jixie, Elliott and Tim, Captain K, Giulia, Phil, Mrs S, Sheli, Martin Kneller and many others I have regrettably forgotten the names of. I met two Aussies, one of whom is an offshore cleaner; a cool Brummie called Boris and a lovely Kiwi called Sarah. And then there was time for speeches - the story of the patchwork quilt, a project that has been going on all year and was to be auctioned for charity later, and then a speech by Mr Danny Wallace himself.

    I've met Danny several times before. On the last occasion, he promised to take me bowling in Prague. This has never happened, although he might have been quite drunk. It was nice that yesterday, as he arrived, he patted me on the shoulder and said "nice to see you again", although he probably says that to everyone he vaguely recognises, particularly at Join Meets where most people have met him before. His speech was to mention the charity work of the day, a few bits of news, and then the 'almost New Year's honours' - an honouring of joinees who have done spectacular acts of kindness over the past year. My friend Lou was awarded a silvering, which raised a mighty cheer.

    Shortly after this I decided to leave. I was very tired, and the rest of the evening belonged to those more committed. To follow was an auction, a raffle, and undoubtedly lots of drunken revelry (and given the patchquilt, possibly some ravelry as well). I made the long journey back to Southgate tube station, gained a few more grey hairs as I cycled home, and retired for the evening.

    I still love Join Me, but I'm not so worried to be in the middle of it any more.




    If you would like to contribute to the chosen charity of this year's meet (Build Africa), you can donate here. The current estimate is that £1,794.95 was raised on the day.

    Join Me pt I (or, "I Belong to a Cult")

    "HAVE fun this weekend, you big weirdo."

    I have a confession to make. I belong to a cult. Well, more of a collective.

    In truth, it used to be a very big and important thing in my life, and so if I had had this blog three years ago, you would have known about it from day one. But now, well, part of me has moved on. I still find it a very entertaining and important movement, but I've been away from it for a long time, and I'm just not quite extroverted enough to dip in fully. However, yesterday was the annual London cult meet-up, so I went along and had a good laugh.

    Perhaps I should explain.

    There is a man called Danny Wallace. At the funeral of his great uncle Gallus, he discovered that Gallus had once tried to set up a commune, tired of the constant aggression and nastiness of World War II. He wanted to get one hundred people to live together on his Swiss farm, in harmony and happiness. He wanted one hundred, but he got three.

    The rest of the family laughed this off, but Danny, bored, unemployed and liable to undertaking stupid challenges, was inspired. He returned to London, determined to get Gallus his one hundred people. He was going to get one hundred people to join him. What for? He had no idea, but that didn't really matter.

    He placed an advert in the London newspaper Loot, inviting people to "Join" him, and to send him a passport photo as means of commitment. By the power of word of mouth and the Internet, slowly people began to join.

    Skip forward several years and a book. There are now thousands of "joinees", all doing the bidding of Danny, their "leader".

    Now, all of this sounds terrifyingly cultish: strangers, meeting over the Internet, doing the bidding of a man who likes sitting around in his flat, in his pants, scratching. They call him "leader".

    But it's not sinister. Because Join Me is a happy, and in no way scary, collective of like-minded lovely people. As numbers grew and became restless with a lack of direction (after all, Danny had no idea why he wanted people to join and why indeed they were joining), Danny had to eventually find a purpose for the group. And it's purpose was to be to make people happy. To go out of your way to perform a random act of kindness (RAoK) each and every Friday.

    And the reason why it works is this: for some reason it has become a taboo to be nice. Not nice in a 'be pleasant to your neighbour' way, but nice in a way that means that you go out of your way to do something exceptional for someone you don't know, just because you can. Once a good deed is done, everyone sees how wonderful it is, but it's the doing that most people refrain from. It's all too easy to walk past the homeless person without stopping to help or chat, because that is what everybody else does and it is almost what is expected of you. You wouldn't buy a stranger a pint in the pub just because it is nice, because people will think that it's strange. But given an excuse, like being a joinee (although there are many other excuses of course), all of these things are possible. Join Me tapped in to the desire of many to belong to something, and the desire for people to do amazing things, given some kind of excuse. And those doing the deed benefit too, receiving the warm, glowing feeling that comes from being a helping hand.

    I am a joinee. I have been for 5 years. For reasons I won't go into at this juncture, my joinee name is, officially, Silver Rainbow Joinee Bish-Bish. Through Join Me I have raced rubber ducks down public fountains, raised money for charity and been on television, line dancing. I have many friends within Join Me, and it's the most marvellous bunch of disparate lovely people who came together for really silly reasons. But I've drifted away. I don't perfom RAoKs every Friday - I just try to generally be nice, and not because Danny told me to, but because I am just generally nice. Or at least I hope so. Until yesterday I hadn't been to a meet in years, having missed last year's London meet for the beaches of Fiji. Before that, I'm not really sure when the last time I got involved was.

    So I decided to go to yesterday's meet to see what had become of Join Me. It is now seven years old and many have moved on, but would there be a new lease of life, new names and renewed enthusiasm? Boy, what a bizarre day it was...






    I really recommend you buy the book. If nothing else it will make you laugh. But it might just change your life.

    Sunday, 30 November 2008

    Redbrick Science 7 & 8

    THE final two parts of the Redbrick series under my supervision. The series was continued the following year, after I had left Birmingham, by Hannah Murfet, although sadly the section no longer exists. Part 7 is written by my good friend Owen Cain.
    First published May 11th, 2007.

    The Redbrick section took up a lot of my time in my final year, as I had to organize others to write, and up until their submission I had no real idea how it would all fit together or what the standard of the content would be. Despite lots of initial interest, the problems with relying on busy students, the uncertainty of which issue I would be allowed to publish in, and the need to print a wide variety of topics meant that possibilities were exhausted very quickly. Thus, when I suddenly had one more page to fill at the end of the year, straight after my final year exams, it fell to me to find something good, different and big to send off the series. We decided that I should investigate the use of animals in research with a local perspective.

    What followed was a highly stressful experience. The further I delved, the harder it got. The university's legal department insisted on pre-approving the article, although weren't overly happy with my need for them to do so with only 24 hours notice. Redbrick were on standby to pull the plug on the article if I couldn't produce it in time. I interviewed two university researchers, neither of whom I could name and only one of whom I could write about what they had told me. The legal department finally got back to me, and changed only one sentence in my now highly watered-down article. Obviously, I cannot tell you which one.

    So, here is the final part of the series, which I rather nervously publish here.


    First published June 8th, 2007.

    Tuesday, 25 November 2008

    Wish You Were Here?

    IN Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, Sara Wheeler flies to Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, on her way to Rothera, the base of the British Antarctic Survey on the Antarctic Peninsula. As they pull up in Stanley, a panel of judges reveal their scores for the landing - Strictly Come Dancing-style marks out of ten on big pieces of cardboard.

    Sometimes when I get bored, I go to Opodo, the flight website. It helps me dream about exotic locations while simultaneously wishing I had more money. Opodo doesn't do budget fares. But what it does do is plan routes expertly and unexpectedly. The game is to try and trick the search engine. What airport is too obscure for it? It will get you from London to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, in two stops. It can easily get you to Malé, the capital of the Maldives, via Germany or Qatar. It will even get you from Heathrow to Lukla, a tiny airstrip built by Sir Edmund Hillary on the edge of a Nepalese mountain.

    Today I got distracted by Opodo. I started by searching for Malé, which got me thinking about island nations. Disappointingly, Opodo cannot find any valid routes to South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands. With a population of about 20 people, I suppose that this is not surprising, but it is included on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website, although the entry for this territory rather amusingly states that "there is a low threat from terrorism".

    South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands is just one of several forgotten British colonies, one of those claimed by Captain Cook. But although we hear about Australia frequently, and the recent change in government in New Zealand made the British newspapers, when was the last time you heard about Anguilla, or Caicos?

    It turns out that there are 13 remaining British-ruled 'Cook' colonies. You might not have ever heard of some of them.

    Anguilla has a population of 10,000. Separated from St Kitts & Nevis in 1980, it is a popular tourist destination. Bermuda, famous for its triangles, has a population of 60,000, and is the oldest British colony. The British Antarctic Territory has no permanent population (except penguins). The British Indian Ocean Territory is a UK and US naval operations centre with a population of 3,000. There's the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falklands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, the Pitcairn Islands (rather vaguely "between Panama and New Zealand"), St Helena, South Georgia and the Turks and Caicos Islands, formerly owned by Jamaica. All of these countries are populated by British citizens.



    I had never heard of the British Indian Ocean Territory. Also known as the Chagos Islands, this is an archipelago of over 1,000 islands over 6 atolls. The capital, Diego Garcia (see picture), is a joint UK/US naval base, built in 1971 for the mutual benefit of both countries (2,000 native peoples were relocated to Mauritius; by British law they cannot yet come back). It was strategically significant in countering the Soviet threat, and has since been used as a base for operations in the Gulf War of 1991 and subsequent activity in Afghanistan and Iraq (and presumably current efforts to combat piracy in the Indian Ocean). The yanks have to ask for our permission to use the colony, but we have to return the lands to Mauritius once we're done with them.

    What really got me excited today (when I should have been doing some work) was Tristan da Cunha. Technically, this is part of St Helena (as is Ascension Island), but Tristan da Cunha is 1,509 miles to the South of St Helena and 1,743 miles from Cape Town, the nearest mainland city. It is the most remote archipelago in the world, and 267 British citizens call it their home.

    In truth, I have always been excited about Tristan da Cunha: from early geography lessons when, like the geek that I am, I would study the world map in my spare time. Here was this exotic-sounding island in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and just next to its name, in parentheses, was "U.K.". How exciting for my country to own this mystifying land!

    Today, I vowed to myself to go to Tristan da Cunha.

    The trouble is, Opodo can't get me there. You have to sail from Cape Town on one of several fishing vessels, which leave on average once a month, or on the annual cruise aboard the SA Agulhas, a South African polar research vessel.

    But once there, just imagine! I could pretend that I yearn for solitude and a peaceful way of life because of the stresses of the busyness of life in London - but in truth, I don't need to be in London to feel like that. Tristan da Cunha's capital, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, seems to be essentially a fishing community on the edge of the world, where village life is the name of the game. For some such isolation would be torture, but for me it sounds amazing - life there is surely about the people and their character.



    Named after Admiral Tristao da Cunha of the Portuguese Navy, the country was on the 'maritime motorway' used by the Dutch East India Company in the seventeenth century. It was renamed the Islands of Refreshment by Jonathon Lambert from Salem, Massachusetts, in 1810, but Lambert drowned in a fishing accident three years later. The British have had possession since 1816, claimed for George III.

    In 1961, the volcano at the centre of the main island of Tristan (the other islands are called Nightingale Island, Gough Island and, delightfully, Inaccessible Island) began to threaten to erupt. By October the island needed to be evacuated, and all 264 islanders were relocated... to Southampton, England. In 1962 a Royal Society expedition studied the impact of the eruption and found Edinburgh largely untouched. Contrary to the plans of the British government, who had assumed the evacuation to be permanent, 198 islanders decided to return. They escaped the 'swinging sixties' and repopulated their home.

    Now Tristan da Cunha is a farming, fishing and stamp-collecting nation, the only overseas island to have its own British postcode (TDCU 1ZZ) and its harbour was recently restored by an emergency MoD Joint Task Force.

    Frankly, life in the most remote community in the world seems to be truly exciting. How wonderful that it is a part of Britain.


    Sources: BBC News, Wikipedia, tristandc.com, tripatlas.com, MoD

    Sunday, 23 November 2008

    Redbrick Science 4, 5 & 6

    First published March 2nd, 2007.

    First published March 9th, 2007.

    Alas, another complaint. This time, nothing to do with me: by no means do I or anybody else at Redbrick associate the specific Birmingham tanning salon in the picture with the content in the feature. This was a silly picture to include and I apologise on behalf of the features editors and chief photographer. The photo was chosen after my contribution had been submitted.

    First published March 23rd, 2007.

    Thursday, 20 November 2008

    Redbrick Science 1, 2 & 3

    WITH my laptop giving up the ghost a month or two back, I lost a lot of files and works from past projects. In order that there is a permanent record somewhere, I intend to publish some previous works, including my Redbrick columns/section from my final year in Birmingham - this is the section I created, edited and commissioned for. Any copy editing errors will be happily blamed on the proofreaders.

    Here are parts one to three. Click the images to view them at slideshare.net.

    First published January 26th, 2007.

    First published February 2nd, 2007.

    Bizarrely, this second report attracted a complaint. So, for the record, polonium can be found naturally in some outcrops of granite. Or peat. Or something.

    First published February 16th, 2007.

    Sunday, 9 November 2008

    30 Pence For The Homeless

    EVERY time I walk past a homeless person, either begging or having given up on their luck, I feel guilty. Part of me - the cynical side - thinks that they would misuse any money I might give them: I think everybody has such thoughts from time to time. But the other part of me feels very, truly selfish. It doesn't make the slightest bit of difference what my financial situation is, and it doesn't matter what got that person into the difficult scenario they find themselves in: I can help, and every time I go past and don't help in some way, that makes me a very bad person.

    When I was in Boston last year, I got a bit confused with how to use a tram ticket machine and found myself with a pocket full of heavy dollar coins (18 of them, in fact). I ended up giving a lot of them away to homeless people - partly because they were heavy, and partly because Boston is ruddy freezing in December and if in any way I can help somebody survive that, then I was going to try.

    Back here though, I became cynical again. Too protective of my loose change. But I still feel guilty, and on Sunday I decided to help a guy I've walked past many times in Birmingham... only to discover that all I had on me was 30 pence.

    Instantly I felt guilty for the completely opposite reason. Which is ruder, to ignore a homeless person, or to get their hopes up and then hand them a pile of five pence pieces?

    He seemed very friendly, and we had a nice chat about life, London and loneliness. And then I ran away, conscious of the fact that, after all that, I probably hadn't really helped him at all.

    Thursday, 6 November 2008

    An Anatomy of 'Feel', by Robbie Williams

    "NEEEYAAA!" says Dean.
    "NeeEEIIiiyaaaa," I repeat.

    I should explain.

    Last weekend, I led, to a substantial degree, the worship at Fixed, the 5pm youth-orientated service at Christ Church Cockfosters. Aiming to appeal to teenagers and students but by no means excluding adults, this is church with a difference: loud rock band, flashy lights, big-screen videos and everybody comfortable on bean bags. Thing was, I wasn't supposed to lead: I was due to play in the band but only the day before received a phone call saying that Judith, who plays the piano, sings and generally runs the show extremely well, was ill, and would I be able to take the reins?

    Part of me was very excited - I've led songs before, having talked my way into becoming a singer and guitarist for the band. But on those previous occasions I've had the full band with me: now I was going to be the principal musician, and co-lead singer, for songs I really didn't know very well.

    I was most worried about Feel, by Robbie Williams.

    For the easily confused, Feel is not a worship song and, to the best of my knowledge, isn't intended to be Christian. However, Fixed have recently been running a series called It's Not Complicated, in which, among other features, a modern song is used each week to start the service. A line from the lyrics of the song is then used to provide a theme for the week. First they used Coldplay's Vida la Viva; on another occasion they used Oasis' Wonderwall; and on my last band appearance I sang The Fray's How to Save a Life, from which the line "and pray to God He hears you" was used.

    "Come on take my hand,
    I want to contact the living"

    The problem with Feel is that it is piano based, and we had just lost our pianist.

    Conveniently for me, my housemate Dean is a guitar teacher and is incredibly talented - within two to three minutes he had the introduction, solo and solo chords converted for the guitar, and within another few minutes he'd corrected the faulty tabulature that I had downloaded and calculated the bass line throughout. Now I had to learn it.

    I have never had a singing lesson in my life. Until my good friend Nelly made me, I never knew that I could sing and certainly would never have done in public. Inconveniently, there is a part of Feel that is just beyond my break, and not knowing how to hit those notes, I simply wasn't trying. A 'break' is something Nelly used to talk about when we played in Birmingham and Sidmouth, but she seemed to know how to get around hers, leaving me to sing within my comfortable range. But to stay within my range in Feel sounded rubbish, killing the momentum that I could achieve at the beginning of the chorus. So Dean and I proceeded to anatomically break down the song, to work out how Robbie, not known for difficult vocals, managed to pull it off.

    Thus began a study of breathing techniques, stomach movements, nasal tones and the fabled break note of A sharp. The first observation was that Robbie cheats, only marginally hitting the required notes at times (your mind fills in the gaps); second that the lines immediately preceding the problematic lyric are sung with a different breathing pattern - this is obvious in the record, but I had always assumed it to be a deliberate, perhaps computerized patch used for effect. Instead, Robbie is changing from his chest voice to his head voice, becoming deliberately husky in preparation for the next line which, in the absence of any ability to use musical parlance, simply needs to be "belted out". (The lines are: "'Cause I got too much life, running through my veins, going to waste", and the one to belt out is "And I need to feel real love, and a life ever after".)

    Knowing all of this, and learning more about my limits, my throat's capabilities, it was simply a matter of practice until I could do it. What followed was about an hour of Dean and I screaming, using head voices (usually horrendously out of tune), first learning what to do with my mouth and throat muscles to stop my natural urge to cough when exerting myself, and running through scales in a Sound of Music fashion, only above my break and in the style of the Bee Gees.

    "NEEEYAAA!" says Dean.
    "NeeEEIIiiyaaaa," I repeat.
    And repeat. Again and again until I could pull off a clean "NEEEYAAA!", at which point Dean will make me go higher, or change to a "WAAAAAA!", which comes out as "WAAAAeeeeEEEEEaaaaa!", as if I'm going through puberty all over again. It is highly embarassing, I'm really not used to making noises like this. I'm usually too reserved. But he got me started, and knowing that nobody was listening, I went for it.

    By the end of the evening I could consistently keep above my break for the entire section, without my throat seizing up, without the need to cough. I could keep the momentum. Heck, if I had been in tune I might even say that I could do it.

    My throat hurt, though.

    And so to 5pm the next day. We've shortened Feel to two verses, two choruses and a bit of instrumental. In the end, I didn't try to hit those notes, as they were still coming out out of tune. The rest of the set seemed to work brilliantly: new song Great is the Lord had been stripped down to make it simpler for the congregation to learn (which meant it was just me and my guitar for the first minute and a half); The Splendour of the King featured a vocal solo from me and an a capella outro duet (co-vocalist Steph doing a much better job than me); and Hallelujah (Worthy of our Praise)*, which I didn't know before I arrived, came out as an extremely exciting funked up piece of pure rock - not quite what the organisers had in mind but we had fun.

    My thanks go to Steph, Johnny and Jarrett, who are all extremely talented and were the real talent in the band.

    I shall be joining the worship team again in two weeks.


    ---
    *by Ben Cantelon (our version didn't sound anything like this)

    Sunday, 26 October 2008

    Sunday, 12 October 2008

    Most Adjacent

    "Hands off my train!"
    (Rachel, J and thieving child)

    WE were off, at the crack of dawn, before the traffic built up and before anything decent was on the radio - "this artist had many hits in the Sixties: that was not one of them" and a trio of Cliff Richard songs later, and the radio was switched in favour of the soothing tones of Classic FM (not typically my station of choice, but an enjoyable sensation nonetheless).

    I was in the car with Rachel, kindly chauffeured by her father, Peter, heading to Harrogate for the christening of the very cute Baby J, the newest addition to their family. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, just in time to meet up with all of the siblings and partners who had accidentally fallen into the queue of Bettys tea shop. Foolishly, we fell in line as well, and caught up over proper tea, elderflower bubbly, pancakes, treacle tart and brown bread ice cream. It was a very enjoyable time - not least for me because it was the first time that I have ever been there as the boyfriend of one of the four sisters, with (nearly) all other sisters in attendance. Until then I had only ever met one sister at a time, and not always with Rachel, but here were all of the couples (some married, some not), and it was just effortlessly easy. I didn't feel like I needed to present myself in any way other than to be myself. I felt like I was in.

    Plus, I also got to see Julia and Alex for the first time since returning from my brief jaunt around the world, and, frankly, I was well excited.

    In the evening we sauntered over to the Old Swan Hotel, where Agatha Christie stayed during her famous ten-day disappearance, which sparked one of the biggest manhunts in history. Here we were to wine and dine with Rachel's parents and grandparents in really rather lavish style. For me though, it was another moment to feel accepted, as I became privy to family stories, in-jokes and exclusive language*. There was talk of real tennis and my job, and then things got a little strange.

    Somehow, and I'm not entirely sure how, we started talking about the kakapo. The kakapo, or owl parrot, is a beautiful green, flightless parrot that lives only in New Zealand. It is critcally endangered, and consequently the only living kakapo have been relocated to four uninhabited islands and are subject to a focused conservation project. According to Wikipedia, there are only 91 left, although I seem to recall reading in Te Papa museum, Wellington, that there were (and perhaps still are) significantly fewer. Kakapo breed only every two to five years, the males exhibit lekking behaviour, and everything depends on the fruit of the rimu plant. Males and females are fussy, lazy and extremely hard to please. And thus, we began to talk about breeding programmes and efforts to - how do I put this - enforce the extraction of necessary components to bring forth the miracle of life and secure the future of the species. There was mention of bubble wrap and puppets.

    This talk went on for some time, but it didn't take long for the following inner monologue to drown out any words actually being said:
    "OH GOOD GRIEF, I'M TALKING TO RACHEL'S MOTHER ABOUT KAKAPO SPERM!"

    To make things worse, Rachel herself then started talking about a story in a James Herriot book about similar such practices in bulls. Conveniently, it was Rachel's mother, Joanna, who rescued us and changed the subject.

    The next day we were off to a nearby village for J's christening. The songs were a little old (circa 1696), and therefore I wasn't the only one trying to hum a plausible melody (Diana's boyfriend Gary could be seen hiding behind his hymn book), but it was a nice service, and the christening itself was lovely - especially when J appeared to want to get into the font and have a bath.

    Then we were all off to the next village's Village Hall, for drinks, nibbles and being introduced as "Rachel's friend". J (well, his daddy) got to open all of his presents, including our hand-crafted wooden train from Estonia, which went down a treat and was 'borrowed' by many children in the room before we had to leave.

    And then we were off, back to the South, via pick and mix, Tibshelf and Birmingham, once again to the soothing sounds of Classic FM. By coincidence, we were joined at Tibshelf by Joanna, Granny and John (step-grandad; to all intents and purposes, Grandad). It was here that John introduced us to the phrase "most adjacent!", a term to express great satisfaction with something, used by a batty ex-pat relation of his (and others) in India at the time of the Raj. We had a good chuckle.


    *FHB etc.

    Sunday, 10 August 2008

    The Green Green Patchy and Irregular Grass of Home

    IT didn't matter that I'd been held up at work. It didn't matter that the Tube was hot and sticky, nor that the lady who had tried to put her arm around her boyfriend had missed and stroked me instead. To some extent it didn't matter that I'd just given a small child concussion, as it was his fault and he should have been looking where he was going.

    All of my stresses and strains were about to leave me alone. I was at Waterloo, the train was leaving the station, and I wouldn't leave it until I had reached the lovely safe haven and beautiful countryside of Devon, the county I shall forever call home. It was to be a weekend of nostalgia and catching up. First I could enjoy the view - the cityscape from Waterloo might not be beautiful, but for me it always strikes a chord, for this is the view I would always see when coming to London as a child. We only came a few times, but it was always an adventure. I don't really remember it from back then, of course, but no matter. This is what London looks like if you come from where I come from. I sat back and watched the world go by, leaving behind the worries and cynicism of being a resident of London and became a tourist again - that's when I'm happiest.

    I afforded myself a brief nap - it was inevitable I would succumb to slumber eventually - as we rode through the commuter belt and then awoke to find myself in the countryside. I tried to read for a while, but as engaging as the works of Gerrard Durrell are I found myself frequently distracted by the world outside. There really is nothing quite like England. Even where mankind has tried to tame the landscape with fields and crops, he cannot conquer the irregularity of Mother Nature herself. No field is ever flat, no plain of grass even. Hedges grow wild, the greens become unpredictably patchy and streams and rivulets simply refuse to go around, winding stubbonly through the middle of fields and meadows making everything that little bit harder for farmers and cows alike. Cities are irregular because of fumes and litter: the countryside is irregular because it's supposed to be, and would be boring if it was anything else.

    Every once in a while there would be a rabbit watching us from beside the tracks. Cows would stand up and salute us, and sheep looked thoroughly confused as we roared past. I particularly liked areas of the tracks that were bordered by steep valleys, leading the eye up into the enormous sky and the setting sun. You see, for all of the excitement of the city, its ordered practicality and hubbub of human creativity, the world is so much more impressive when there is nothing but you and the elements.

    We passed a ruined castle outside of Sherborne, a boating lake not much further along the tracks, and old engines in the Yeovil Junction train museum - all highlights I'd never noticed before. I suppose I had to go away and become a cynical city dweller to reappreciate my home.

    Then I was at Axminster and into the car bound for the house. The following day I picked up Rachel from Taunton, where she was helping at a CYFA camp, and took her to Sidmouth. It was the opening day of the Sidmouth Folk Festival. There to join us were Nelly and Jack, Bradley, Rory and Alex, Emily, Lucy and Liam, and amazingly, Lorna and Owen, who had come down from Birmingham at my invitation. It was a reunion of the home crew and the Birmingham crew, brought together for the first time. Sadly it rained during the day, so we had few opportunities to see the festival, but there was one magical moment when, seeking refuge in a quiet bar, a side of Morris Dancers (to use the correct collective noun) came in to practice. Space was tight, and at one stage Rory and I found ourselves separated from the rest of the group, squashed against the bar by the dancers, having to lean back every so often to avoid being hit by a decorative handkerchief.

    Other pubs and other displays were later enjoyed. I regret that I could not see more of the show, and that I did not manage to see other friends who could only come later, as I was taking Rachel back to Taunton. No matter, as the following day I finally got to give Owen a tour of Colyton, after so many years of telling him about the place. I was a bit rubbish to be honest, having to admit I don't really know much about the Monmouth Rebellion, nor of the town's industrial roots, but we jointly enjoyed the community feel and lamented the inevitable loss of individual businesses and town landmarks as the population ages and the younger people move away. I suppose I'm partly to blame for that, although I am not to blame for the loss of the tea shop in Queen's Square.

    And then, no sooner had I had chance to relax, I was off again, back to North London and that other life I live - the working, city life. I was really quite sad to leave - life in Devon is just so different from here. By no means is it easy, nor is it simple, but it concerns itself with such different affairs; a fairer pace; a happier way of life.

    I refuse to let go of it.

    Saturday, 9 August 2008

    Re: If You Pick A Raw Paw

    LAST year, as I was travelling through Fiji, we sat through a hurricane scare. I tell everyone the story, making it far more interesting and melodramatic than the simple comment 'hurricane missed, everything OK' I published at the time - I usually start the story with the phrase "I thought it was a bit windy".

    If you are interested may I direct you to this link from BBC News about the effects of the cyclone, categorised as 'severe tropical cyclone Daman'; a category 4 (Australian Bureau of Meteorology scale) hurricane with a Beaufort Scale ranking of 12 - this is not the same as a category 4 hurricane in the North Atlantic or Pacific, which is ranked according to the Saffir-Simpson scale: see here for a comparison.

    Read 'If You Pick A Raw Paw' here.

    Two Fries and a Poppadom

    A FEW months ago, I promised to share with you the story of the Alans, a mighty race of people from Sarmatia and the steppe. I didn't, namely because when it came down to it, I was too lazy to find out myself. Although I bought The Histories by Herodotus, and had every intention of joining the British Library to begin my research, I ended up just gleaming a few facts from Wikipedia and that was that. You see, I had a month of extreme loneliness, and the enthusiasm I mustered, knowing that I had to find something to keep my spirits up, lasted only a short while. When you are lonely and your enthusiasm has finally been drained, you become a bit useless, and all of the exciting endeavours you promised yourself are never completed. I know this well, since when I moved to London I had many plans, very few of which have materialised: I never wrote those books, I never joined a swimming pool, I never found a band. After six months, I didn't even have anyone I could call up on a Friday evening to meet up for a pint.

    But things have improved, so much so that yesterday I began my quest to research the Alans once more.

    The day started, as all of the best days do, with an invitation to a talk about Martians. The discussion, held, as one would expect, in a pub, was a meeting of the 'Skeptics in the Pub'. Held in Holborn in the next few weeks, I will be sure to report here of the meeting and what we can all learn from our planetary neighbours.

    But then the day got weirder - from Martians and the Skeptics in the Pub to the Centre for Fortean Zoology and then the Flat Earth Society, who seem to think that Christopher Columbus was very good with mirrors. Their theories and logic made for very interesting, albeit flawed, reading. And then I began my hunt for the Alans.

    As I have previous explained, I wish to know everything about everything that has ever happened. But given that that is a rather large topic, I have started with the menacing and terrifying clan that goes by the innocuous name of the Alans. I typed their name into Google, and came across 'Alan's homepage'. With the internet, and indeed electricity, not invented when the tribe ceased to exist, I didn't hold out much hope for the site - it was hardly going to be a last outpost, a plea to the world to remember the legacy of the cheeky civilization. Alas no, it was even stranger - the website of Alan Dix, a professor of computer science at Lancaster University, who once gave a talk about public toilets in Amsterdam.

    From his website I quote:

    "Designs for public toilets often focus on supporting cultural values of hygeniene and privacy. What do we miss by ignoring the fact that public toilets are also the site for a variety of social practices?"

    Incidentally this is Amsterdam, and not Azkaban, as Rachel believed I had said when I told her last night.

    I finished the day on a high. I hadn't achieved much, mind. But after feeling low for such a long time, all of these quirky sites and stupid theories were reminding me of the whims of life, something I used to embrace, something I have abandoned to focus on establishing myself, in my job, in my new location. I've devoted myself so much that, by my own admission, I've become extremely boring.

    I returned to Southgate and almost went to Wimpy to celebrate. That's how happy I was. But I resisted, promising instead that I'd take Rachel there for a treat. I headed into KFC up the road for a happy Zinger meal, and watched the world go by, basking in its diversity and opportunity. And then a man came in and tried to order "two fries and a poppadom", and I couldn't help but smile.

    Half an hour later I was on a tube train with Tom, youth leader at Christchurch Cockfosters, and we were off to the cinema to see The Dark Knight. It was an excellent film, and an excellent evening. I couldn't share with Tom quite how much it had meant that I had someone to go out with, as it would have sounded obsessive and stalkerish, and possibly even homoerotic. He doesn't need to know that I'm struggling to find friends here - a ridiculous notion given that this is the biggest city in the United Kingdom. But I am, and last night meant a lot - so if you ever read this Tom: thanks. You achieved two good deeds yesterday, you made a Spanish lady and a Westcountry lad very happy.

    Tuesday, 22 July 2008

    A Doer and A Dreamer


    "IMGP6890"
    , originally uploaded by SBishop.

    Beside the Citadel, Budapest, Hungary.
    Title suggestions are welcome.

    Sunday, 20 July 2008

    Tropical Paradise, just minutes from Tottenham

    EVERY day a bus passes me with "Enfield Island Village" stated as its destination. Every day this excites me. Although I live on the fringes of London, a 15 minute walk from the greenbelt with country parks and tree-shrouded mansions all around me, one finds it difficult to imagine Daniel Defoe coming up with the idea of Robinson Crusoe in the urban borough of Enfield. But could it be? Could there be an island, just minutes from Tottenham, where the people live in tree houses, swing from tree to tree and trade in coconuts?

    Rachel and I went this weekend to investigate.

    We drove on, past Oakwood tube station, through Enfield town centre, the evening sun bathing the town green and market in glorious light. Further we went into unchartered territory, treading where many have probably gone before. Past Cineworld. Past Pizza Hut.

    Then suddenly there was a sign. Not a light from the heavens or a symbolic gesture, just the words: two miles to the island village. The village of dreams, of hula and happiness. We were ready to ditch the car on the ocean shore, hop in a boat and row.

    Now, as you well know, I've been to the islands of the south pacific. I remember sun, reefs, thatched bure huts and an easy way of life. I don't, as far as I recall, remember seeing a Matalan. But this is what we passed just before the bridge onto the island, which turned out to be a flagship housing development between the River Lee Navigation Channel and the Cattlegate Flood Relief Channel. The site used to house a government-owned musket and sword factory, which was built too late for the Napoleonic War but was more than handy in the Crimean War of 1854/5, the Boer War and the two World Wars. The factories closed in 1987.

    Nowadays, it is full of modern flats. There are canals and canal boats, but fishing is prohibited. There are no palm trees, but there are lots of speed bumps.

    Needless to say, we were a little bit disappointed. So we got back in the car, found a lovely Italian restaurant in Palmers Green and then bought pudding in a local patisserie. This was far more entertaining than the Island Village because, by complete coincidence, both puddings had rude names. Oh how we giggled like school children.

    Friday, 4 July 2008

    The Definite Article

    UNIVERSITY: a time for freedom, learning and social bonding. In the case of two people from the University of Birmingham, however, it was also a time to rock out.

    Just over one year on, here's the [unedited] band biography, as written by Baz, copied from the MySpace. Further band-related news is to follow!


    “BANDMATES WANTED
    DESIRE TO SAVE/RULE THE WORLD: OPTIONAL”

    So, how do you combine the sounds of U2 and Guns N’ Roses? Well, apparently by accident…

    In an unassuming wing of the University of Birmingham’s then spanking-brand-new Shackleton Hall, regularly seeking refuge from a menacing bass line from a downstairs flat, two unassuming chaps with a shared penchant for ‘rock’ in the 1980s sense of the word were flung together by the hand of fate (or more precisely, a shared sensible desire for a quiet, smoke-free environment where they might be able to get some work done). It was here, over copious quantities of tea and overpriced Ginster’s sandwiches, that the foundations of a new breed of rock were laid … sort of…

    Spurred on by fantasies of rock superstardom, Baz and Simon set out on the path to rock glory, swapping CD’s and writing songs. Many late night jams (yep, well after 8 o’clock) in their living room were to follow, searching for the middle ground between the dichotomy of their musical ideals. Baz was planning costumes, spandex and face melting solos; Simon was planning light shows and awe-inspiring visuals. True to Bonn Scott’s prophecy, it would prove an awfully long way to the top for these rock ‘n’ rollers, indeed, it was a good 9 months before they got round to advertising for a band and finding a rehearsal space…

    It would take a further 18 months, 3 singers, 2 drummers and 2 bass players until the final, classic line-up of the as-yet unnamed group took shape. Yet these formative months, characterised by a flurry of rehearsals, resignations, tantrums, side-projects and increasingly amusingly worded ‘band wanted’ adverts, would herald the material, and more crucially the camaraderie, that would produce the Selly Oak Sessions EP.

    Driven-forward by the percussive stylings of the refreshingly attractive Meg Griffiths (a rare breed of drummer with all limbs in correct proportion and devoid of the bodily odours that heralded man’s invention of the drum riser), recruited via an imaginatively worded Baz-penned poster beseeching the reader ‘PLAY DRUMS?!’, the 4-piece took shape upon a solid foundation. Meg’s metronomic rhythms and Animal-from-the- Muppets-esque fills came to be complemented by the rather more laid back, even slick, bass-lines of the altogether rather too-talented-for-his-own-good guitarist/bassist/backing vocalist and belatedly apprentice drummer Chris ‘Take it Easy Dude’ Johnston, who joined the band in late 2006 after his girlfriend fortuitously spotted a 12 month old poster seeking a bass player, vocalist and drummer for Baz and Simon’s fledgling project. His talents were snapped-up following a neighbour-baiting mid-week jam session at Baz and Simon’s new Selly Oak residence which featured a 20 minute jam on the Rolling Stone’s classic ‘Gimme Shelter’; at once glorious in its grandeur and belying of Baz’s perpetual inclination – ‘just one more guitar solo… please?’.

    Rehearsing at Rich Bitch Recording and Rehearsal Studios in Selly Oak Birmingham, having jettisoned the hope of ever finding a suitable singer or of Axl Rose returning Baz’s calls, Simon added lead vocals to his ever expanding list of duties (others being rhythm guitar, IT technician, director of taste and counter-point to Baz’s assertion ‘nothing good has been recorded since 1993’) and a plot was hatched to record an EP of original and covered material. The premise was simple – combine the raucous (tasteless?) lead guitar of Guns N’ Roses as aped by Baz, with the introversion and lyrical sensibilities of the Manic Street Preachers, throw-in a dash of tasteful acoustic strumming, allow Simon to exorcise his Edge complex via his trusty multi-effects pedal on at least one track and hope Meg and Chris could hold things together. The result? – The Selly Oak Sessions EP.

    Recorded following a debut live performance on the hallowed rock ‘n’ roll ground of Baz’s girlfriend’s garage in June 2007, the ’Sessions EP saw the band lay down 5 tracks – 3 original, 2 covers in 12 hours in Studio 1 at Rich Bitch. Presented here for your listening pleasure, The Selly Oak Sessions is testament to the achievements to date of the band now known as The Definite Article.

    Monday, 23 June 2008

    On The National Express

    AFTER a year of such dramatic events - graduation, travelling, moving to a new city (London at that) - it seems strange to be settling down to a routine and old habits. Take trains, for example. A few years ago I toured England by train, for fun, and then and since have made many journeys by locomotive - each journey with an exciting story to tell. But since last September, it all got more advanced: 10 flights around the world in four months, then separate trips to Oslo and Budapest, the latter via Vienna, as you may have read. So it was strange then to find myself on Saturday going on a train adventure to Nottingham, but it didn't take long for the joys of train travel to return.

    There are standard events - children screaming, other children wandering and pestering (one took great interest in Len, my mp3 player) - but unexpected events too - once I had a lady opposite me composing a breakfast of cornflakes and sliced banana with a dash of fresh milk; on Saturday I just had a lady painting her nails (the fumes amplified by the steamy weather).

    Once when I was travelling up to Birmingham from Devon, I became surrounded by football fans who had come aboard at Bristol Parkway after attending a pivotal game at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff (I forget what the game was, but I believe it was an FA Cup round). I was keeping myself to myself, reading through some notes for an essay I was due to write on evolution and the origins of life, or more specifically the theories on these topics. My good friends the drunken supporters decided to take an interest.

    "What are you reading?" one of them asked.

    "About the theory of evolution," I answered.

    "Well, now, we can tell you all about that" they began. "You see, there was once this chap called Darwin. Charles was his first name. Now he came up with this theory, about adaptation, natural selection and survival of the fittest. However, many people don't like this theory. They say that there are flaws with it, particularly the gaps in the fossil record. How could humans have come from monkeys, if there were no cave men or primitive men in between? Well I'll tell you a secret - these people did exist. They still do. They're called Manchester United supporters."

    My favourite story from the Golden Age of train travel, excluding the impromptu excursion to Machynlleth that Rachel and I made last year, comes from Westbury, the premier train station of Wiltshire. Westbury has since confirmed itself as the hub of unusual activity on my mental rail map, but the story of the bearded man of 7/8 (yes, the month after 7/7) is for another time. On this occasion I was heading to Cardiff, but because it was a Sunday, I had to go via the middle of nowhere. Changing train at Westbury, I wandered the platforms looking for a clue as to which train was mine. All of the announcements contradicted each other, and the man on the platform wasn't in the least bit helpful. So I boarded the train that was there waiting, and asked a passenger if this was the train that I required.

    "Goes to Trowbridge."

    "Is that on the way to Cardiff?"

    "I dunno. I'm going to Trowbridge."

    "Right, thanks." I disembark, but with no better plan and now fairly confident that it did indeed go on to Cardiff, I got back on again and went on an adventure to Trowbridge.

    I sat near to the man I had spoken to, but quickly regretted it. Discarded empty cans of Special Brew all around him, it didn't take long for him to strike up conversation once more.

    "What's your name?" he asks.

    Given that it would be rude to ignore him, I answered.

    "Ah Simon," he said, "I think that was my name once."

    I balked. How could this be so? How can a man forget his name?

    "What do you mean?" I asked. "What do you call yourself now?"

    His response was one of the most magnificently bizarre answers I have ever heard. He said, and I kid you not, nor do I paraphrase or exaggerate:

    "Fungus of the Valley."

    He claimed to be aiming for the world record for the longest fungus-related name ever. His full name he presently told me - I can no longer recall it, but every word was in some way mycotic, and there were a lot of words. This was a truly bizarre man, and ever so slightly creepy. I continue to wonder if he was on something stronger than Special Brew.

    I now know where Trowbridge is. It's the first stop from Westbury on the line that indeed terminates at Cardiff Central. Which is a relief.

    Saturday, 14 June 2008

    Lang may your lum reek!

    Originally published in Redbrick Vol 71 Issue 1301 [Features], December 2006

    "Lang may your lum reek!"

    THESE were the words upon which the health and luck of our Glaswegian flat depended. All I had to do was say them correctly. Not “long may your mum reek” or any other such silly suggestion offered by my peers, but a word-perfect “Lang may your lum reek”, or “long may your chimney smoke” to the rest of us. This is the traditional saying of the First-Footer, the first person in the New Year to step over the threshold of a friend or neighbour’s house, bringing fortune.

    One of the many traditions of Hogmanay, the First-Footing requires a drink, a source of fuel and a tall, dark, handsome stranger. Dark hair is supposed to symbolise a true Scot; after all, a red-haired or blonde male brings with him a history of those pesky Norsemen. The trouble is, there is not a trace of Scottish ancestry in my blood – I was just a southern sassenach staying with a friend in Scotland. Fitting the ‘dark haired and tall’ criteria, I was armed with a match and a glass of water (not quite the coal and dram of whisky of olden days) and ready to immerse myself in tradition. If only I could remember that phrase…

    Once again it’s that time of the year, or - more precisely – next year. In the excitement of Christmas we put to the back of our minds the fact that 2006 is counting down. The time for fireworks, champagne and Jools Holland shouting “Hootenanny!” is nearly upon us.

    But what defines this year we so eagerly usher in? We are so used to our calendar that we forget it has not always been this way, and yet the clues are all around us. September is our ninth month, but its prefix means seven. In fact, all of the final months of the year are two months out of place. We have the Romans to blame for that. When Numa Pompilius added January and February and a leap month (Mensis Intercalaris) to the start of the calendar, he thought he’d solved the riddle of the missing 61 days of winter each year. But the leap year was added too infrequently and time drifted away from the seasons. In 46 BC, Julius Caesar consulted his astronomers and replaced the Roman calendar with his own.

    The Julian calendar gave us our modern day month lengths. Mensis Intercalaris was removed and replaced with the February leap day. To the casual observer it was perfect, if a little confusing: 46 BC lasted 445 days to align the calendars and when Julius Caesar was assassinated only the next year, records cannot quite decide on which date he died, having not yet accustomed to the new system.

    Alas, even the great Dictator of the Roman Republic can get things wrong. Pontifices who defined leap years were adding a day to February every three years instead of four. It fell to Augustus to correct this, setting the Empire into a regular four-year cycle after 36 years of temporal drift. It is because of the roles of these Roman leaders that the months of Quintilis and Sextilis were renamed Iulius (July) and Augustus (August), much to the annoyance of future leaders.

    The Julian calendar is incorrect by, annoyingly, eleven minutes each year. Such a small error was not noticeable in the reign of Augustus, but by 1582 things were sufficiently out of synch. In waltzed Pope Gregory XIII, after whom our modern Gregorian calendar is named, with a plan to stop this drift. The big difference? Drop 3 leap days per four hundred years. Not a massive change, but an essential one. When Britain adopted the system in 1752, Wednesday 2nd September was followed by Thursday 14th September. Eleven days never happened. Even more startling, many parts of the world did not adopt this system for centuries. Russia, for example, waited until the end of the Revolution in 1918.

    Given that a pope decreed our calendar, and our years are numbered after the traditional birth year of Jesus (Anno domini means “In the year of our Lord”), why do we celebrate January 1st as the start of the year, rather than the 25th December? The truth is, we once did.

    New Year’s day has often been associated with Catholic feasts. There have been Christmas-style New Years on the 25th of December, but also celebrations of the Annunciation (the revelation of the archangel Gabriel to Mary), on the 25th March and, perhaps pivotally, the feast of the Circumcision of Jesus on January 1st. Yet before that, the pre-Julian Romans had settled on January 1st as the start of a new office.

    And so to the present day. The current western Liturgical calendar began on Sunday at the start of Advent, the new Orthodox year will begin on the Julian 1st of January (our 14th of January until 2100) and the Jewish Rosh Hashannah celebration takes place in September. Other cultures choose the start of spring. Many Southeastern Asian countries celebrate in April. Then there are calendars based on the moon: the Chinese Year of the Pig begins on February 18, 2007 and in 2008 Muslims will get to celebrate two New Years.

    For the Western world though, 2007 will begin at midnight on January 1st. Perhaps you will sing Robert Burn’s Auld Lang Syne, or watch the Waterford Crystal Ball descend in New York’s Time Square. Perhaps you might like to see the swinging of metre-wide flaming tar balls in Stonehaven, or sit back and eat traditional doughnut-like oliebollen in Holland. Perhaps you might celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which came into effect on the first day of 1862, or stare at a Euro note and wonder how it got to be eight years old. Or, more likely, you’ll be drunk.

    I’ll still be reliving the memory of taking part in the world’s largest Strip the Willow, an enormous Ceilidh at the Night Afore celebration in Edinburgh, one of more than 3,500 people swinging around strangers to the beat of the Portobello band. I’ll reminisce about Mark Saul’s trance-bagpipe music and some truly bizarre street theatre. Oh, and the fact that that Dryburgh flat is still going strong. Long may its chimney smoke!

    Thursday, 29 May 2008

    Forget the hands, the future is in your cerebellum

    The brain is a masterpiece of neurological wiring, a mysterious, convoluted mass of matter that manages to somehow think, recall and control the human body. In many areas, the function of the brain remains a mystery. Now scientists have found the part of the brain that can predict your future.

    Imagine part of your body is constantly moving. The countless receptors that contribute to your senses can detect where you are, but as clever as your brain is, this information will take a small amount of time to be computed. It has to be encoded so that it can be transmitted from the sensor along a nerve to the brain, which might be a good metre or more away, and then decoded. By the time you know where you are, your motion has taken you further, so you are no longer where you think you are.

    To compensate, scientists have predicted that part of the brain can integrate up-to-date positional information with the motion commands it gave to that body part, prior to receiving ‘afferent’ information from sense receptors. In other words, by adding together where you were with what direction you are going, it can compute where you are, before it knows for sure.

    This ability is known as state estimation. It is what stops you from knocking over your mug of coffee in the morning — when reaching for your daily dose of caffeine you want to stop just before you reach the handle, rather than waiting for your fingers to say that you’ve arrived. Otherwise, that’s today’s crossword ruined.

    Until recently, there had been no direct experimental evidence to pinpoint the part of the brain that is responsible. Indirect evidence, as determined from patients with lesions in particular parts of the brain, suggested that it was the role of the cerebellum, a brain region already known to play a part in sensory perception and motor control.

    To test this, Chris Miall of the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham, and colleagues, designed an experiment to directly manipulate the cerebellum during a simple movement task. To describe it sounds like a horror scene from a science-fiction novel: participants have a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) device — in essence a very large electromagnet — strapped to their scalp, and their head is trapped between a chin rest and a rigid metal frame. Wearing goggles and with a computer sensor strapped to their finger, the subject begins to resemble a cyborg, the inner workings of their brain subject to manipulation from the machine.

    The actual explanation of the study is somewhat less melodramatic but equally as enthralling. TMS creates rapidly changing magnetic fields which are directed to a focal point — in this case the cerebellum — to depolarize brain neurons and consequently induce electric currents.

    Participants were asked to move their hand in a straight line until a random cue signified that they should make a rapid movement up and left to point at a predetermined virtual target, which was created by mirrors reflecting a high-tech yellow and pink earplug. After a few practice runs, the goggles went opaque and the trials in essence became blind.

    In half of the trials, three pulses of TMS were triggered shortly after the ‘go’ cue. Each pulse lasted 50 milliseconds — that’s one twentieth of a second.

    Miall’s team believe that by using this technique, they disrupt state estimation by the cerebellum. Consequently, when the participant reaches for the target their motion is based on out-of-date information.

    “By zapping the cerebellum with TMS we recorded systematic deviations in subjects' trajectories,” says Owen Cain, one of Miall’s team. “This effect was localized to the cerebellum: stimulation of other brain areas (such as the motor cortex) gave much smaller deviations. These deviations were not random: subjects moved their hands as if they were where they had been 100 milliseconds in the past. In other words, they were planning their trajectories based on out-of-date information.”

    Their study implies that TMS might be highly useful in future experiments to directly test brain function. “The thing about TMS is you can use the subject as their own control: when TMS is on, the part of the brain that it is stimulating is off, and vice versa. That's very useful when you want to know what that part of brain is doing.” The functions of the brain might not remain mysterious for long.




    Miall, R. C., Christensen L. O. D., Cain O. & Stanley J. Disruption of State Estimation in the Human Lateral Cerebellum. PLoS Biol 5 (11), e316 (2007). doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050316
    This is available to download for free from http://www.plos.org


    Quotes come from conversations with Owen Cain, and detailed descriptions of the experimental set-up come from first-hand experience: I am one of the forty-five participants of the trials.

    Sunday, 25 May 2008

    Budapest v. három

    WE finally arrived at the Hotel Aquarius at about 2pm the following day. Our flight to Vienna had gone smoothly but, perhaps predictably given our poor luck thus far, the connecting flight to Budapest was delayed. The plane was apparently experiencing technical errors. In the distance, something was aflame. Things did not bode well.

    Our hotel, with its shoddy trees and spangly water, was 7km outside of the centre of Budapest. Poor planning on our part there then. Travel to the centre was easy enough, hopping on bus #3 from the Nagytétény stop, just outside the hotel, all the way in. After a quick nap we did just that, heading for a restaurant that had received good press in our guidebook. It really was quite spectacular.


    The Giero restaurant was a small, family run business. By small, we mean it had the sum total of 3 tables. Situated in a bunker off a dingy backstreet, it's not quite tourist territory. However, the friendly lady, who is the waitress, head chef and granny-in-residence all rolled into one, ushered us to our table. We had the pick of the lot; apparently it was a slow night due to the football. Nestled in our corner, she offered us tonight's selection. Basically we had to have what she was cooking, but there were no complaints there as it all sounded delicious. While she made our dinner, we admired the rustic decoration of our cellar. It was very... Hungarian. As was the food, as reiterated by our chef every 2 seconds. "This Hungarian soup... this Hungarian meat... these Hungarian potatoes...." etc. The only things that weren't Hungarian were the cutlery and the tumblers, which were all from Ikea. The toilet was handily situated in a small cupboard opening off the main restaurant, concealed by an old curtain.

    The highlight of our evening arrived halfway through Simon's (Hungarian) egg soup. Two rather large Roma men entered and tuned up their respective instruments. One sat behind what we suspect was a cimbalom, and the other brandished a violin. For the next 2 hours, they proceeded to serenade us, and only us, with their mix of Hungarian traditional music and well known classics such as "Dream a little dream of me". Unique and utterly charming.
    Although we were enjoying ourselves greatly, we were also exhausted from our travelling, and the time came for bed. However, still being the only patrons, we were in the awkward situation of not only having to leave mid-song, but also having to leave the musicians with no audience to play to. We felt less bad about this after being coerced into buying their CD (but I managed to haggle with them a little bit- it was twice the price of our meal!) and buying them a round of Hungarian shots. After a nice chat with the violinist (in German) and an embarassing rendition of Happy Birthday, Hungarian style (naturally), we made our exit.

    An hour, 2 trams and a bus later, we were finally back at the Hotel Aquarius. It had been a short day in Budapest but a very memorable way to celebrate a birthday.

    Budapest part kettő

    Our hotel is ideal for:

    · Individual and group tourists they want to discover all our city
    · Local corporate guests and business travellers
    · Long term guests with our comfortable rooms, apartments, variety of services and special rates
    · Participants of trainings, seminars or conferences because of our excellent conference facilities and high standard rooms
    · Guests they prefer active recreation because of the wide range of our wellness services ("The indoor building up of our hotel – with the feeling of our atrium swimming pool, with the peaceful silent of the spangly water and the restful spectacle of our aquarium – makes not just our body fit for the following pleasant experiences, but eases and switches off our overstressed minds.") and sport possibilities of the neighbourhood
    · Family events (wedding ceremonies, receptions, anniversaries) because of our excellent cuisine and banquet services
    · Garden parties with music and dance events in our silent garden surrounded by shoddy trees and on the terrace
    · Enthusiasts of the Hungarian wines and sparkling wines
    · Gourmets
    · Guests they prefer to stay in a friendly atmosphere at convenient prices

    How could we resist staying at the Aquarius Hotel, with a description like that??

    Wednesday, 21 May 2008

    Budapest diary egy

    GOODNESS me, Terminal 5 is a bit fancy, isn't it? All that glass, the swish technology, the signs pointing in the wrong directions...

    I do like Terminal 5. For all its extravagance, the one thing that appeals the most cannot be produced by wealth and pomposity. I don't need a Harrods in an airport terminal, and I'm just as happy to go to Upper Crust as I am to Wagamamas. No, what I like about Terminal 5 is the atmosphere - this is a spacious and light building, and most important of all, it is relaxed. Nobody is in a hurry, nobody in a panic.

    It is 9pm. Our direct flight to Budapest, which was supposed to take off forty minutes ago, has just been cancelled. In British Airway's defence, it isn't their fault. Air traffic control problems over Maastricht have thrown European flights into disarray. I've gone to fetch the bags, Rachel has gone to negotiate a new flight.

    It is 10.30pm. We're sitting in Rachel's kitchen, with new flight passes and an horrific 3.30am start ahead of us. At 6am we will finally be off, with Austrian Airlines this time, to Budapest via Vienna. We should be in Budapest by now, sipping champagne (possibly) on our hotel terrace. Instead, we're in Buckinghamshire. Ho hum.

    Wednesday, 7 May 2008

    Go Go Gadget Mario Kart Wii

    I WAS on a train. That much was fact. Where the train was going, and where it might stop, these were details that remained less than certain.

    So it was that myself and a nice chap from Buxton (of water fame) came to be sitting in First Class of a Virgin Pendolino, despite not being in possession of First Class tickets. He had been to London for the day for a work meeting in the wine bar Vinopolis, having been to Hemel Hempstead the day before for the same reason, commuting every day from Buxton. Tomorrow he would be returning to London. I think he had been enjoying it until the signal failure at Milton Keynes, which threw the entire Virgin Trains network into disarray. For this reason I had had to board this train also, knowing simply that it was going North. It was tentatively listed as bound for Manchester Piccadilly, but since the train I was supposed to catch had disappeared from the departures board at Euston (not cancelled, it simply ceased to exist), such details were far from trustworthy.

    Three hours after my intended arrival time, my second train of the evening pulled up to Chester train station with a very weary Simon inside. I had waved goodbye to my friend from Buxton at Stockport and immediately made a new friend, a student from Knutsford who was studying in Chester. We talked about many things on the journey, from sea snakes in Fiji to the class system in Cheshire.

    "I'll tell you something about Chester," he said to me as we walked towards the exit at Chester. "It was beautiful until they moved all the Scousers in."

    Chester, I might add, is still beautiful. I was here to visit my sister, who lives next to a windmill and has befriended every cat in the city. I had a wonderful weekend, and below are a few stories of my time there.

    --

    It didn't take long to fire up the Wii. Ever since the launch of the Wii I have been taunted with two basic facts: I can't afford one, and my sister has one. Not only that, but she has Zelda: Twilight Princess. Amazingly, despite my constant desire to acquire one, I had up until this weekend never played on one, so after an initial catch-up and a bite to eat, we were playing virtual tennis and some very silly games on Wii Play. I loved it.

    --

    Chester Zoo holds a special place in Jo's heart. She worked there for eleven months as a monkey - sorry, research assistant - and she seizes every opportunity to go back. On this particular occasion she reveled in showing me around, as this was my first ever visit. We marvelled at the size of the elephants, cooed at the coatis, and giggled at the meerkats, my favourite animal in the zoo. We also saw Margaret, the baby giraffe.

    Somehow I had become a good luck charm that day. Where normally a visitor might be lucky to see one of the jaguars in their enclosure, on this day we saw all five; from mother and child play-fighting to posers and layabouts and the majestic Pelé, a black jaguar with his very own private jungle. They truly were beautiful creatures.

    In the Realm of the Red Ape, a baby orang-utan kept everybody's attention, but it was the elder ape who caught my eye. At the base of the enormous enclosure, the orang had clearly spotted some source of sumptuous food, and was collecting available sticks to poke through the fence to hook it towards them. Starting with a simple twig, over the few minutes I was watching the tools got bigger, until the ape was forcing half a tree through the fence. I don't know if they succeeded. Nonetheless it was very exciting to watch primate ingenuity in action. In the monkey section, I failed miserably to beat a baboon at a simple coordination task: fifteen seconds to get the nut? You're having a laugh!

    The good luck continued as the otters were out, looking far too cute for their own good and following us around their enclosure. The spectacled bear was also on show, the okapi had an identity crisis (is it a giraffe, is it a zebra?), the warty hog received an appreciative giggle, the komodo dragon was being lazy and a capybara got stuck in a tub while we watched on.

    --

    I was rubbish at Sonic And Mario At The Olympics, overly adventurous on Super Mario Galaxy, but could eventually hold my own on Mario Kart Wii.

    --

    We visited Chester itself on Sunday, stopping off in the Japanese shop in The Rows and the sweet shop beside the Cathedral. Down by the Dee we walked into the Roman gardens (first giving way to a squirrel) and dreamt of the time when the Romans first built the city, intending to make it their capital on the British Isles (or Britannia, if you will). The ruins were a delight, as all ruins are to me, and moving around the city wall continued to bring surprises. The city is a constant stream of wonderful architecture, and the cloudy skies could do nothing to dampen my spirits. If only the street artist drawing Doctor Who-themed scenes of Chester had been there that weekend, too.

    --

    By a stroke of luck, we got 50% off of our bill at La Tasca.

    --

    I herded some goats on Zelda: Twilight Princess. It was ace.