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.