Saturday, March 27, 2010

If you’re really bored, read on. And on. And on . . . Fuses, an insightful trip to Halfords and seafood medley beats the paté on toast.

I’m a great one for sneering at other people, even though as a well-brought up, middle-class sort of chap, more often than not I keep my thoughts to myself, or, at least, I try to, and people are very often none the wiser.
Would it be too, too snobbish of me, for example, to observe that visiting Asda is like shopping on a council estate? Yes, I think it probably would, so I shall keep schtum on that score and try to mitigate my apparent unpleasantness by admitting that if it is batteries you are after, or cheap DVDs, or any number of branded goods, Asda is no worse than any other store. For food I prefer to go elsewhere. I don’t really know why, but I do.
That was something of an unexpected diversion, so I shall get back to what I originally planned to say. Sneering is not nice, so by way of a penance I shall recount a very mundane incident today which culminated in my having an ineffably mundane insight. Were anyone else to have the same insight and go on to articulate it (which is what I did silently) then I would send them up rotten.
It started when I tried to get the DC power supply to my satnav going again. It has been out of operation for several months and I have been using a USB cable with the relevant DC cigarette lighter socket plug (which I bought at Asda for just a few pence. There, am I redeemed?) There was no particular reason why I should try to get it going again, but I decided to do so after my young son Wesley took apart another such DC power supply plug and discovered that once you unscrew the ‘top bit’, you find small fuse. ‘Ah-ha,’ I thought, ‘all I’ve got to do is to replace the fuse with one from another DC power supply I am not using, and I shall get it working again. QED.’ Except that I didn’t. I substituted the fuse, but when I stuck it in the socket, it still didn’t work. Oh, well, I thought, it must be something else.
About ten minutes later I realised that my car radio had stopped working. This is irritating because I have the radio on all the time when I am driving (Radio 4: I’m middle-class. See above). I decided that the radio fuse had gone and as I know where the fuses are in my British racing green Rover 45 (middle-class, again see above. And if that weren't enought, I am, by the way, writing this I am wearing a Guernsey sweater), I took a peek. To get at the fuses, you have to remove a kind of drawer just beneath the steering wheel, and on the back of this drawer is a diagram of all the different fuses and what amperage they are. There I discovered that the cigarette lighter and car radio both run off the same fuse. Even better, Rover supply a spare fuse for every amperage used. The trouble is that not only are they a bastard to get at, they are even more of a bastard to remove, especially when you are on your knees in an Asda car park, bent down almost double, craning your neck under the steering wheel and staring into a dark gloom with long sight. After a lot of pointless tugging with my fingers, I realised I needed the proper toold to do the job and decided to go to B&Q across the road to buy a pair of pliers. Then I realised that I could also get a new fuse at the branch of Halfords just down form B&Q. Outside Halfords, a staff member was wandering up and down having a fag, and I asked him whether the store sold pliers small enough to remove the fuse. Better than that, he told me, they have a special tool to do the job. Just ask in the store for Blake on Riptest (which is what it sounded like, but I don’t have a clue what he meant). In the store I could see nothing remotely like any department whose name might be interpreted as ‘Riptest’, but I told myself that I was grown up now and I would probably be able to find the pliers and replacement fuses with any assistance from Blake. Well, I couldn’t, and wandering around the almost deserted store — deserted is not a good sign for a Saturday early afternoon — I couldn’t at first find any member of staff until after a few minutes I came across three quietly gossiping in a corner. I explained what I wanted and one of them took me down to the fuses and also found me the ‘special tool’ for removing them. It is a small, plastic item, which probably cost no more than a tenth of a penny to make but is immensely useful. I bought it and my fuse (you get two in the packet), went outside and replaced the dead fuse. I then immediately blew it by plugging in the satnav lead with the substituted fuse (I trust all this talk of fuses isn’t confusing — I am talking about different types here). So I removed the blown new fuse I had popped in with the immensely useful plastic tool I had discovered, and popped in the second one.
And where is all this leading to? Well, to here: as I was walking out of Halfords with my packet of two fuses and a similar packet containing the plastic removal tool, I reflected: ‘Isn’t it strange how you seem to learn something new every day?’ My point is, dear reader, that if someone else has said that, I would have mocked them without mercy. Ah, but I said it. Mundane or what?
If you’ve been with me this far, here’s something to look forward to: an account of why I had a seafood medley with vinaigrette for lunch yesterday rather than paté on toast as I had planned. If you have stayed with me thus far, you’ll find it a riveting read. And yes, it is still Saturday afternoon.

Am I retired? No, not yet, but as you can see I’m slowly, gently cruising into an early dotage.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

All things to all men: philosophy, Darfur, self-help and why meaning is not so important

The website which religiously informs me of these things has reported that this blog has again been sought out by the guy (or gal) attracted to it using the buzzword ‘philosophy’. And yet again he (or she) will have been disappointed with what they came across had they lingered and read on a little. If I remember, I was in a rather bad mood and used extremely coarse language to slag off several people. Well, perhaps I should try to keep them here a little longer when they next turn up and put my skates on to write something about philosophy, but the trouble is I have absolutely nothing original to say. What I can do, though, is to outline what any would-be philosopher will not find here.
I pointed out a few entries ago that because of the nature of the course I took at Dundee University all those years ago, my slender knowledge of philosophy is further constrained by the fact that the department there was solely interested in what is generally known as ‘Oxford philosophy’. That it offered — and I took — a course in Existentialism which dealt with (naturally) Jean-Paul Sartre, Kierkegaard, Jaspers and Heidigger (and regular readers will already have cottoned on that those are the only four existentialist philosophers I know, which is why I am obliged to repeat the names) must be put down to an innate British courtesy, rather as we might acknowledge that the French and Italians also like to cook. But generally if a school of philosophy’s ideas did not meet the rigourous standards laid down by the Oxford school, it was a little difficult to take them all that seriously.
So the searcher after truth tracking me down to this blog must take that into account.
He or she should also realise that I am not in the slightest interested in trying to understand ‘what life is all about’ or ‘what the meaning of life might be’. In a nutshell, my view is that life, whether human, animal or plant, simply evolved and that it is intrinsically without meaning. That is, however, not to say, that our individual and communal lives have no meaning. It is merely to say that whatever meaning there is for us (and were I a little slicker, I might try to introduce obliquely Kierkegaard’s notion of subjective truth, but unfortunately I am as slick as a coarse metal file) is wholly artificial (in a rather obscure sense of the word, but I can’t, at this point, be arsed trying to find the right one). It boils down to this: life is. What it is, how it evolved, where it is going to, I really do not know, but more to the point, I have no interest in speculating. I don’t intend spending my time beating my head against a brick wall.
It is worth pointing out, of course, that we are most interested in ‘understanding what life is about’ or searching for the meaning of life’ when we are in our post-pubescent years and ‘life’ as we see it all around us is often something of a mystery, if not sometimes a little unsettling. The other time we find ourselves casting about for ‘meaning’ is when, for one reason or another, we are unhappy. (And we are sometimes unhappy without realising it. Regular drinking can often mask an underlying unhappiness. Just out of interest, spend an evening with friends in a bar, but stick to soft drinks while they are getting rat-arsed. You will find yourself wondering just what is so funny about all the things they are laughing at — and it is not you who is being po-faced. One suspect that life wouldn't be so much of a breeze if they had less booze in them.) Of course, none of that is to say that we would otherwise not be interested in the ‘meaning of life’. It’s just that most of us have an unlimited capacity for bullshitting ourselves and if we really were interested in that kind of thing, we would spend a great deal more time and effort pursuing that interest. As it is, all we really want is a few headline facts, a couple of quotable quotes and something to keep up going until Emmerdale or EastEnders starts, or Days Of Our Lives or Neighbours, or whatever soap is now the most popular.
I often, rather glibly, wonder aloud just how interested refugees in, say, Darfur are in ‘the meaning of life’. I should think their more immediate concern is simply with remaining alive by finding food and drink and avoiding violence. Speculating on the ‘meaning of life’ is all too often a pastime indulged in by the leisured classes. That is not, however, to say that the hopes and wishes and aspirations of such refugees are not identical to yours and mine. Last night I heard a news report from a refugee camp in Darfur which has been so longstanding that there are several well-established schools there with pupils keen to learn. There’s little difference between them and us, except that we can be reasonably certain where our next meal is coming from and need not live in fear of being killed. (Incidentally, it is notable that, for example, something like education is most valued by those who have least access to it. One of the lessons I am trying to drum into my two children is to understand that ‘easy come, easy go’, that to achieve what is usually most worthwhile and rewarding in life usually take rather more effort. It is something I wish I had been taught when I was a child, but I don’t think I ever was.)
Musing on the ‘meaning of life’, I should like to mention a cartoon strip I once regularly read in a newspaper. It was a cartoon strip called Hagar the Horrible, which appeared for many years on the back page of The Sun. In the strip I particularly remember (and to be honest I remember no others), Hagar is sitting at a bar staring morosely into his beer. The barman notices his sombre mood and asks him what the matter is.
‘Sometimes,’ says Hagar gloomily, ‘I wonder why we’re all here.’
‘Well,’ says the barman, ‘I’m the barman. I’m here to serve drinks.’
Quite. It’s not exactly deep, but that joke contains a rather important truth. For me at least. Tackled from a different angle, I shall pass on an Icelandic fisherman’s saying I once came across and which I always find reassuring: ‘When in the storm,’ it urges, ‘pray to God. But keep rowing.’
The searcher after truth will also not find here any of the usual gunge which masquerades as philosophy in any number of middle-brow self-help books. If they are intent on going on a ‘journey’ to discover their ‘inner self’ or ‘the child within’ or anything of that kind, good luck to them. But they will find no practical help in this blog. I have not doubt that such books, which I gather sell by the lorry-load all over the world, can provide a temporary respite from whatever ails those who buy them, but the ones I have flicked through in bookshops have been 24 carat crap. The make very little sense at all and remind me all too easily of those ads claiming that they will reveal to you THE secret of losing weight, or of getting rid of that flabby belly, or making a million dollars in three months or of 1,001 other things which concern us. They invariably go on and on and on and on about what they promise they are going to do for you, but never actually get to the point. Ever. Because, of course, by the time you have bought the book, you are of now more interest to the author.
It would be only fair to add here that I did once by a self-help book, but this one was of practical advice and there was not an airy-fairy notion in it. I bought it in the spring of 1990 when I was in the depths of a reasonably severe bout of clinical depression and it was along the lines of explaining what, physically, depression was, and counselling that depressive attacks are self-limiting. It was by a Dorothy Rowe, a respected British psychologist and is full of very good, practical advice. I have never, however, bought a book hoping to become a ‘better me’ or anything of that kind, although I have toyed (and, to tell the truth, am still toying) with the idea of writing one called A Cynic’s Guide To A Happier You, which would consist solely of good advice along the lines of don’t overspend, don’t drink or eat too much, don’t expect everything always to be perfect, always be honest with yourself even if you can’t always be honest with others, avoid telling lies and don’t burn the candle at both ends.
Which is all a long, long way from ‘philosophy’ even if not of the Oxford school. But as I have waffled on for quite a while now, I must pull myself up short and resume these inconsequential musings another time.
By the way, I am writing this sitting on the train on my iBook and shall upload it later. The reason I mention that is that the particular word-processing software I am using is called Bean and it is the most useful I have come across, not least because right at the bottom of the screen is a word count which updates with every word I write. I have now, it tells me written 1,545 with this word, and I feel I should go on to see whether I can’t hit 2,000. However, I doubt that anything I write will be any more interesting — or rather any less dull — than what I have written so far, and the chances are that given that I would merely be padding out a piece of writing simply to hit 2,000 words, it might well be pretty boring stuff. And with that I have still only made 1,621, so I really shall call it a day.
PS As, as usual, I have gone through this a day later to iron out infelicities and spelling mistakes (despite knowing better, I still tend to write ‘to’ when I should be writing ‘too’) so the figures given of how many words I have written are wrong, though I doubt whether any reader has been bored enough to count the words just to check whether I am telling the truth.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fucking newspapers, fucking execs and a few more choice observations. If you are of a sensitive dispostion, do the honourable thing and fuck off.

I’m in a bad mood, my wife and the two little kiddiwinks have buggered off somewhere (Elsie has football training, I think), it’s 7.15 at night, no one (i.e. my wife) has mentioned what we are doing about supper — should I prepare something for myself or should I wait until they return whenever they are due to return? — I’ve had two modest glasses of wine, but more to the point I’m at the end of my third glass, there’s no more and I don’t want to drink any spirits or anything stronger than wine, so I thought I might rant a little on my blog.
First complaint: who the bloody hell reads this? I had three acknowledged readers, and the relevant gubbins here which tells me how many (if you want technical chapter and verse, you’re on your own) tells me I still have three, but only two are registered in another area of the technical gubbins, and Mr B. Mc. is observing radio silence. Actually, I think that is because he is having rather a rough time finding another job, to which it is relevant to add that were my shifts at the Mail to end, I would be up shit creek, not only without a paddle but without a fucking canoe. So he has my sympathy and good wishes. That last is relevant because — and it would be too, too tedious to go into any depth here but it involves a new page layout system, a changeover from Mac to PCs, me for the past three weeks doing on my own which on a good day is done by two of us — I have had two rather high-profile bust-ups (strictly ‘busts-up’, but anyone reading this who wants to make exactly that point can go fuck themselves) with a chap who was once the Mail’s production editor, then retired, was then recalled on an expensive consultancy basis to see in the new system and who is to geekdom what the Pope is to the Roman Catholic church. I actually walked off the winner on both occasions, but that means nothing. In the whacky world of the Mail, which is to the feudal system what the Pope is to the Roman Catholic church, such behaviour from the poor bloody infantry — I am still a casual, a chap hired by the day and thus a hack in the strict sense of the word — is at best utterly unacceptable and at worst a hanging offence. The only good aspect to it all is that I usually get on with the chap, his geeky nature notwithstanding, and neither he nor I hold a grudge.
So on to other matters: for the past three weeks I have, almost literally, although obviously not quite literally, been working my bollocks off. A week last Wednesday, when I had the car in London, I was due to drive to Bristol and see Ken, the chap rather closer to death’s door than yours truly unless yours truly falls under a bus at some point over the coming weeks. I usually finish at just after 6pm on Wednesdays, but a week last Wednesday, I was still fucking around with this new system until 8.15, which meant that rather than get to Ken’s by 8.45, I didn’t get there until just after 11pm. Mercifully, he was asleep and hadn’t noticed that I was over two hours late.
This Wednesday I didn’t have the car, but was due to catch a train from Paddington at 7.45. That was late enough for me to hang around for at least an hour after I am due to finish and still get to the station on time. I didn’t go to the gym in the morning, but started work on my pages at 9.15 to make sure everything was done and dusted in good time. It was: I had done all the work I had to do, bar making the chief sub’s marks, by 6.15. It should have been a doddle, but it wasn’t. She didn’t start reading the last two pages, the letters’ pages, until just before 7pm and when, at 7.10pm, I announced that I would have to go to catch my train and that someone else would have to do the marks, it was greeted in much the same way the British public would greet the news that someone had raped the Queen. My name was mud. Bugger that over the past three weeks I had stayed on for several hours longer than I am being paid for, all that was noticed that I had the temerity to ensure I wouldn’t miss my train.
All of you out there who, having read this blog so far, still — still — feel that newspapers are populated by professionals and gentleman: you should, and I hope will, be sectioned.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Frederic Raphael insufferable and vain beyond reason: rather like his glittering characters

I drove home from work a day later than usual because I stopped off at Ken’s to see how he was and to give him a little company, and stayed over. So I found myself driving back down the M5 during the day, and it was a little strange because there is far less traffic in the evening when I usually drive. But it allows me to listen to afternoon programmes on Radio 4 and this afternoon Auntie’s Afternoon Play (that’s the BBC’s Afternoon Play — Auntie is just an honorific we use to show how feeble the old broadcaster is getting) was Final Demands by Frederic Raphael, a series of plays in which he brings the characters he first imposed on the world in The Glittering Prizes up to date.

I never saw The Glittering Prizes ‘a BBC drama about the changing lives of a group of Cambridge students first broadcast in 1976. Starting in 1953 with a group of Cambridge students the drama follows them through to middle-age and ends in the 1970s’ (a description from Wikipedia), but at the time you couldn’t but hear about it. It was as though Shakespeare was reborn and had rewritten Hamlet for television. Everyone who regarded themselves as even vaguely middle-class simply gushed about The Glittering Prizes, darling, and wondered why life had been so cruel not to send them to Oxbridge but have them make do with Loughborough.

Raphael was a big noise in literary circles after that and, I should imagine, ever since, no doubt on highly familiar terms with Martin and Hilary and Kingsley and Hanif and Jeanette, but he does absolutely nothing for me. I was first unimpressed with him when I recently watched a DVD of Darling, which starred Julie Christie and Dirk Bogarde and for which he won an Oscar for his screenplay, which baffles me. Everything is in quotable quote. The dialogue was utterly stilted. No one speaks as ordinary folk do. Perhaps Raphael and his clever friends spoke like that at Cambridge but I wouldn’t know — I didn’t go to Cambridge and even if I had and bumped into Raphael and his chums, I wouldn’t have been able to stick around for long enough to find out.

Today’s play, the update on all those Glittering Prizes characters, was just as insufferable: the main character, Adam Morris, so obviously and so vainly based on Raphael himself, is incapable of saying anything without turning it into a quip. Morris us an award-winning novelist and screenwriter — ring any bells — happily married to ‘Ba’ for ever. Everything he says, and I do mean everything, has to be smart and seemingly quotable. All the other characters do, too. How anyone can think this is great stuff is beyond me. I should imagine it goes down very well in Women’s Institute literature groups. Awful, awful, awful and in true Daily Mail style, I shall tune in to hear the second play — there is a total of six — when it is broadcast to be even further outraged.

Philosophy - Pt I. What's it all about, then? With references to Sartre, Hume, Bishop Berkeley, Bertrand Russell and a certain London cabbie.

I notice someone else has visited my blog after finding it by googling ‘philosophy’, and they, too, I should imagine, will have trudged off rather disappointed by the lack of intellectual sparkle exhibited here. So just in case someone else does the same — and I am always keen to avoid disappointing the punter, whatever his or her reasons for dropping by — I shall write a few words and try to clarify exactly what my interest in philosophy is and is not.

First off, I should point out that what one man or woman means by philosophy (in the narrow, academic sense) is something of a movable feast. I took a philosophy degree course at Dundee University in the late Sixties/early Seventies and the department there was definitely signed up to what was then known (and, for all I know, might still be today) as the Oxford school of philosophy, which took a — for want of a better word — ‘scientific’ approach to philosophy, in as far as it was strict on what might be regarded as ‘known’ and, in spirit, firmly adhered to an almost mathematical approach to knowledge. The Oxford school regarded — regards? — itself as the orthodoxy and rather looked down on what, I think, it referred to the Continental school of philosophy, which it thought of as ‘sentimental’ in a literal sense. The Continental school, of course, regarded the Oxford school — if it was in the slightest bit bothered, which is probably was not — as being stuck up and elitist. Now I might here and now throw a few names into the pot and attempt to give the impression that I am au fait with their work, but the truth is that I am not.

I arrived at Dundee a very young 18-year-old, and I don’t think I was sufficiently intellectually mature enough to benefit from a degree course of the kind then provided. (These days, I gather rather to my horror, a gradgrindian emphasis on regarding a degree course as a preparation for life in ‘the workplace’ is the vogue, whereas when I went to college, the philosophy of tertiary education was still that its purpose was to train a mind. Thus a history graduate might well, later in life, find himself in building a career in sales, or marketing, or advertising, or in the Civil Service. Undergraduates studying medicine or engineering, of course, were more likely, although no necessarily, to end up working as doctors or engineers, but even then this was not such a given. More on the changing nature of student life in another entry. Why, for example, are students no longer out on the streets protesting?

The strict Oxford school approach did not necessarily preclude us studying philosophy beyond the pale, such as existentialism, but I should imagine doing so was seen as a kind of charitable ecumenical interest. So what Sartre, Heidigger, Kierkegaard and Jaspers had to say was studied, as were Bishop Berkeley (‘we exist because God is thinking about us’), Hume, Locke, Descartes and various other bods. Studying their work was an exercise in seeing what had lead up to the Oxford school.

I was something of an intellectual scavenger and would pick up a snippet here and a titbit there, which, judiciously and strategically thrown into conversation might well give the impression that I knew what I was talking about. Unfortunately I didn’t. In my fourth year, we all attended a seminar on ‘the Vienna Circle’, many of whom had arrived at philosophy from mathematics and treated the subject in much the same manner. This would explain their doctrine (too strong a word, but what the hell) of logical positivism. To this day, I'm not too sure what it is, except that it is grounded in empiricism. (My French cousin, a professor of aesthetics, who must remain nameless after I named him in a previous, now deleted entry, is firmly in the rationalist school, whereas I rather think all that ‘we can work it all out as long as we think it through and have enough red wine’ is err, on the wrong track.)

In my fourth year at Dundee, we students were all expected to write and read ‘a paper’ and in hindsight I hate to think just how jejune mine must have been. I do, however remember, answering, in response to the observation that there was an ultimate truth out there ‘in reality’ to a statement such as ‘the cat sat on the mat’, that such thinking did not and could never account for outright sarcasm. My comment came towards, although not at, the end of the seminar, and I remember it broke up early. At the time I prided myself on having thrown an intellectual spanner into the works, though I now suspect the assembled philosophy staff simply thought ‘life’s too short. Let’s go off an have a cup of tea’.

There is an apocryphal story told my a London cabbie which might illuminate the varying approaches to philosophy and what different people who profess and interest in philosophy think it is. The cabbie stopped in The Strand and immediately recognised that his new passenger was none other than Bertrand Russell.
‘You’re Lord Russell, aren’t you,’ the cabbie said to the passenger.
‘Yes, I am,’ Bertrand Russell replied.
‘All right,’ said the cabbie, ‘what’s it all about then?’
‘And do you know,’ the cabbie later told his friend, ‘he couldn’t tell me!’

Part II to come when I am a little less tired. Good night.